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Published on: October 5, 2012
Democracy and Corruption

I want to make one correction to an assertion I made in my last blog post.  In it, I said that delivery of services like education and health care is something that “states accomplish, and not the institutions that check them.” This is a big overstatement.  The checking institutions actually play a big role in […]

I want to make one correction to an assertion I made in my last blog post.  In it, I said that delivery of services like education and health care is something that “states accomplish, and not the institutions that check them.”

This is a big overstatement.  The checking institutions actually play a big role in improving the delivery of services and controlling corruption.  Courts are often used to force executive branches to carry out mandated tasks, and of course to prosecute corrupt officials.  Democratic accountability, free media, and open information are  critical in disciplining corruption and keeping on pressure to improve performance.  Much of the international donor community has been promoting mechanisms to increase transparency and accountability in governments as the primary route towards good governance.  The Open Government Initiative developed by my colleague Jeremy Weinstein is another worthy effort in this direction.  Clearly, the more information that’s out there about corruption and bad governance, the more people are likely to mobilize around pressuring executives to fix things.

I was trying to make a different and more complex point.  There is no question that greater transparency and accountability, as well as strict application of the law, are critical to improving the performance of governments.  However, without basic capacity, no amount of transparency and accountability will produce good services.  If you look around the world at all of the great bureaucratic traditions—Germany, Sweden, Japan, Singapore, etc.—not one of them became great because of democratic accountability.  In fact, many great bureaucracies were created by authoritarian regimes that needed efficient services, primarily for the sake of national survival.  This was true of American state-building as well in the Progressive Era–something that I will have to address in a later post.

Moreover, democratic accountability is a double-edged sword.  We of course want bureaucracies to be broadly responsive to public needs, rather than serving their own interests, or those of the elites that appoint them.  On the other hand, there is a permanent tension between accountability and bureaucratic autonomy based on expertise and merit.  Democratic accountability produces its own forms of corruption, as when politicians mobilize voters clientelistically.  In clientelistic systems politicians don’t just set policy and appoint heads of agencies, they choose personnel throughout the bureaucracy.  Politicians representing, in theory, the public will, often make populistic choices at odds with long-term public interest.  This is why executive branches have to be shielded from day-to-day legislative oversight.  The need for bureaucratic autonomy is why we don’t turn monetary policy or military strategy over to our elected representatives for management.  Most Americans seem to recognize (at least implicitly) the importance of expertise and autonomy; surveys like General Social Survey tend to show that the most respected parts of the US government are actually the least democratic:  the Supreme Court, the military, the Centers for Disease Control, etc. By contrast, the part of the government most immediately accountable to public opinion, the House of Representatives, is the least respected of all.

So the checking institutions (law and accountability) have to do their job to force executives to serve the public will.  But checks by themselves do not produce the expertise and enforcement power needed to govern effectively.  I argued last year in the Financial Times that the American system has too many checks, when compared to other democratic systems, and has been steadily accumulating more as time goes on.  Vetocracies can stop bad things from happening, but they also don’t provide for much by way of effective collective action.

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  • Anthony

    “However, without basic capacity, no amount of transparency and accountability will produce good services.” Capacity turns on culture; that is, culture underlays state capacity – the organizing principle in both theory and practice; the societal organization, nee social arrangements, by which executive bureaucracy both executes policy and maintains institutional accountability. Francis Fukuyama, can concept be intuitively correlated vis-a-vis state capacity and quality of good governance?

  • Anthony

    Tension between accountability and bureaucratic autonomy based on expertise and merit brings to mind the Democratic Dilemma (paradox in democracy) as cited by John W. Gardener – “Vetocracies can stop bad things from happening, but they also don’t provide for much by way of effective action.”

  • victoria wilson – mn

    There could be a distinction between at least two measures of a state’s capacity.

    First, there is the efficiency of the bureaucrats and the system in which they function. Are their actions free from coercion; what is their level of human capital; do they support of a merit based system? These proponents are reflective of the state employees and the structure of their employment.

    But the success of the delivery of services by the state is much more tied to the populace receiving the services than the functioning of state bureaucracy.

    For instance, the Chicago public school teachers, state agents responsible for the delivery of education, successfully argued that not only should they be paid a higher than average wage for their labor but that the results of their labor need not score in line with similar delivery systems across the U.S. They argued that the recipients of their services directly impacted their capacity to provide education.

    So a state’s capacity is partially determined by the efficiency of the state’s bureaucracy, and partially by the receptiveness of its citizens.

    And what determines the population mix in the Chicago school system? Residents evaluate whether they would prefer to forgo income and pay for private schools, or have their children attend public schools. Part of their evaluation undoubtedly considers the potential future earning power of their children based on their education. It appears that those with financial ability, which are also those with human capital, are choosing alternatives to public schools. This leaves a disproportionate group of disadvantaged students in the urban public schools.

    So the city’s capacity to educate children has been effected by rational economic choices of its residents.

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  • LarryReiser

    An efficient bureaucracy is difficult in the best of times however when it is burdened with a never ending chain of burdensome regulation and executive political manipulation the proper workings of the democratic state are frustrated.

  • sjl2112

    Perhaps the professor should analyze the dimension of sheer size of government as it bears on this issue. The “vetocracies” he dreads arise naturally to thwart the mega-state. Who would bother to develop an elaborate apparatus to challenge a state which limited its activities to legitimate defense and a few public works?

    The more resources that a deployed in “government”, it seems axiomatic that the more challengers will arise to influence (at a minimum) how these resources are deployed (or not). The CDC and the Supreme Court don’t use a lot of resources. While the military does, it is generally viewed as an instrument of policy, not a policy-making organ (of course, this is debatable). Large-scale social engineering policy projects are going to be scrutinized, no matter how many so-called “experts” are in charge.

  • Jim.

    You should talk to Peter Berger… one solution (as suggested by Sweden and Germany) is Lutheranism. ;)

  • angrywhitejarhead

    I suggest something very simple….integrity. That is what’s lacking in our elected officials in this day and age. Personal accountability and integrity.

  • may

    In the US, the voter approval requirements now hinder local government reforms. Meanwhile the economic segregation facilitated by the fragmented system with minimal integration bodes ill for its future in the minority-majority era that started in 2011 (with new majority generation babies). The majority of this group suffers from being from the segment of the population most disadvantaged by the local system and biased state policies.

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