Professors Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson explain Corruption Is Just a Symptom, Not the Disease / To end global poverty, stop tolerating national institutions that serve greedy elites and suck poor countries dry, on 12/5 in the Wall Street Journal.
Corruption is the highly visible symptom of much deeper issues.
The real problem?
The lack of an operating justice system. The lack of accountability. The lack of a free press that can actually get away with challenging those in power – that means reporters don’t get beat up, thrown in jail, or killed when they irritate political leaders.
I would like to add the lack of political and property rights. On the other hand, perhaps those are also symptoms. If the legal system is so broken that it won’t enforce contracts, then property rights are worthless. The broken underlying governmental system is the cause.
The professors advocate that in order to reduce poverty it is necessary to correct the underlying infrastructure. Attacking corruption without changing the nonfunctioning political and operating systems will leave the cause of poverty and suffering in place.
Attacking corruption to end poverty is sort of like taking cough medicine to fight pneumonia.
It is the underlying systems that allow the leaders to extract wealth for themselves at the expense of everyone else that is the issue, not the stealing itself.
The article cites pre-1994 South Africa and Cuba today as illustrations that lack of corruption makes things okay. Apartheid era South Africa had low levels of corruption but because of the fundamentally broken system of apartheid did not see widespread prosperity.
Likewise Cuba. It is has low levels of corruption but the country is poorer than when the Communists took over. Imagine that, almost 60 years of dictatorial rule in the country has taken the country backwards economically. Just imagine the amount of human suffering communism has caused in just that one country. That the suffering has been accompanied by low levels of corruption is no consolation when very few people have enough to eat or wear.
Whether corruption is the cause or the symptom makes a huge difference. If your fight is against corruption, the corruption will never go away because the underlying brokenness causes new outbreaks of all the visible problems. Removing one corrupt dictator or cabinet member only means another will take his (usually his) place.
The article points out that actually changing political and economic systems is far more difficult. Yet that will actually produce change.
The authors advocate addressing the underlying systemic issues instead of the surface symptoms of corruption if we really want to curtail poverty and reduce the resulting suffering.
Check out the full article. It is superb.