Corruption and the last rites of the technocrats

Airing one of my more unfashionable views for no other reason than because Chris Blattman echoes me.

The reasons that corruption should hurt growth are so persuasive that economists have been pretty surprised not to find much evidence.  One team reviewed 41 different cross-country studies of corruption and development. Two-thirds of the studies don’t even find a negative correlation. Cross-country studies have mostly bad data and empirics, so we should not rest here. But Jacob Svensson has a nice overview of the broader evidence and draws the same conclusion: there’s not much to show that corruption reduces growth on net.

I think Acemoglu and Robinson put it best…

Here is a conjecture: corruption is a way for many economists and policymakers to talk about bad political outcomes without talking about politics… Corruption is an attractive talking point for both politicians and many economists because it is fundamentally viewed as apolitical. But poverty, alas, is not.

This fear of politics ties into the technocratisation of policy making. Following the 1980s people began to think that economics was best left to economists. That they would work out clever answers to complicated questions and that clever people would implement them. Even if the electorate was stupid and didn’t want them, technocrats could win the battle of ideas.

The last fifteen years or so, at least since the Asian Financial Crisis, reality has been punching technocrats in the face again and again and again. Of course, most of the punches came from the developing world and could be safely ignored. Finally, in the face of massive suffering in the Eurozone and the US technocrats like Brad DeLong began to think again about politics and political economy.

Its the institutions, stupid. And it is stupid people who build institutions. They’re built by the stupid because we are all stupid. Everyday the worlds stock of knowledge expands more rapidly than you can learn. We are all progressively getting more stupid. If you want long term positive change then you have to force people towards your idea of it. The best organised and most convincing win because it is only in groups that we can overcome our innate ignorance.

Over a long enough time frame, humanity will return to the stone age or die trying. For a long time, people have accepted that ideas matter, but the old idea that putting lots and lots of people behind those ideas is coming back into fashion.