Putin’s “Power Vertical”: Blanchard and Shleifer Revisited

In 2000, Olivier Blanchard and Andrei Shleifer wrote a seminal paper comparing the impact of federalism on economic development in Russia and China. Blanchard and Shleifer aimed to solve the puzzle of why federalism–and, in particular, inter-jurisdictional competition–fostered economic growth in China but hampered it in Russia. Simplifying somewhat, their key conclusion was that the absence of political centralization in Russia was the culprit. With no strong national government to act as a disciplinarian, Russian localities were prone to a particular form of corruption–capture by local special interests–and localities competed for rents instead of competing for firms by making improvements we associate with open governments and economies. In Meng’s recent post about political decentralization in China, she endorses Blanchard & Shleifer’s analysis, and advises against granting Chinese regional and local governments more autonomy from the center. Implicitly, her post is a caution against moves that would make China in 2014 look like Russia looked in 2000.

But what about Russia? Fourteen years after Blanchard & Shleifer wrote their paper, political centralization is a reality in Russia — in terms of the strength of the ruling party, Russia resembles China much more closely now than it did in 2000.  So one might expect, if Blanchard & Shleifer’s analysis were correct, that local corruption in Russia should have abated, and competition between Russia’s different regions should now be growth-promoting rather than growth-retarding.  Alas, Russia’s experience over the past 14 years suggests that this has not come to pass.

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Can Federalism Curb Corruption in China?

Many commentators have credited China’s political decentralization, and the inter-jurisdictional competition it fosters, with suppressing local corruption and promoting economic growth. Other commentators have been similarly enthusiastic about the prospects for Chinese “federalism” to improve both economic and government performance, and urge China to go even further in embracing a federalist model.  For instance, an op-ed in the New York Times a few months back suggests that “[I]f China’s leaders want to ensure their country’s peace and prosperity over the long run, they would do well to chart a course toward a federal future.”

The main argument for why political decentralization, and the associated inter-jurisdictional competition, can improve governance and growth is straightforward: Local officials compete for mobile capital and labor, and this competition disciplines government officials because bad behavior (such as corruption) can cause voters and firms to move to another jurisdiction. The greater the mobility of firms and citizens, the stronger the disciplining effect. And there’s some rigorous recent academic research substantiating the hypothesis that political competition can improve governance, including an excellent recent paper that examines recent data from Vietnam and finds that economic growth, coupled with political decentralization and competition, has indeed reduced local government corruption.

So does this mean that China’s best hope for improving its governance performance is to decentralize even further, granting provinces and municipalities greater autonomy in setting policy within their jurisdictions?

The short answer is likely to be no.

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