Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Political Economy of Anti-Corruption: Of Anticorruption and Moral Superiority

Both Mariana and a commentator on another blogger – Professor Matthew Stephenson over at the Global Anticorruption Blog [“GAB”] – have questioned my earlier suggestion that one of the drivers behind the global anti-corruption movement is that it offers people in the ‘West’ opportunity to claim moral superiority.  At least part of their challenge lies in my own failure to make clear what I meant by this claim.  So I want to offer clarification and explain more where my impressions giving rise to this claim come from.

But first, I want to clarify what I did not mean by the claim.  I did not mean that everyone involved in the anticorruption movement is infected by this impulse.  In fact, I think that the vast majority are not.  But I do believe that some are, and as discussed below, that these particular some are a not always an insignificant factor in driving the global anticorruption agenda.

Nor do I claim or believe this to be a distinctly Western mindset.  In fact, below I will also give examples of this mindset occurring among non-Western populations.  Relatedly, I never meant to claim that concern with, or even ‘obsession’ with, corruption is a uniquely or distinctly Western phenomenon.   I simply focus on its manifestation within ‘the West’ – particularly the United States – because I am ultimately concerned with how this mindset might be affecting the shape of law and development projects (and thinking), which is still overwhelmingly an American endeavor.

Finally, I clearly do not claim that it is the only or even the predominant motor behind the global anticorruption movement.  I mentioned it because I think that it is significant enough to warrant some level of awareness, but in fact, I think it relatively minor compared to the other two motors I discussed – namely a desire to preserve belief in new-institutional economics and belief in human agency.

My suspicious that the anti-corruption movement has been driven to some part by its implications for moral superiority arose primarily out of my experience with the Asian Financial Crisis of the later 1990s, which I will discuss in a moment.  But first, some background to support that suspicion.  American culture has long been attracted to the idea of American exceptionalism.  Part of that Exceptionalism involves a claim, at actually seems to have originated (quite ironically) in France (I bet they regret this now) as part of the French Enlightenment, that the United States (or, in the case of the French, the English colonies that would become the United States) enjoys a special moral status among the peoples of the Earth. 

With the onset of the Cold War, American exceptionalism became linked to American capitalism, during which it was widely argued that American capitalism evinced the moral superiority of the American political system vis-a-vis that of the Soviets (see, e.g., Milton Freidman’s Capitalism and Freedom or Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom).  Indeed, many in America saw the collapse of the Eastern Bloc as confirmation of this, as evinced by the popularity and influence of Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man.

But even before the collapse of the Soviet Union, the superiority of American capitalism came to be challenged from another front, that of Asia, and in particular by what we might call Asian capitalism.  And it was only natural for many Americans to take the same arguments that they had developed to advance moral superiority over 'socialist' economic systems to attack this new challenger.  I thought this was clearly in evidence in the late 1990s, with the coming of the Asian Financial Crisis. 

There was no shortage of American commentators, including academic commentators, who greeted the onset of the Asian financial crisis in 1997 with a clear degree of glee.    The crisis even spawned a new term, “crony capitalism”, to explain why the Asian financial crisis occurred.  The word ‘crony’ carries a clear moral connotation, and I believe that its clear intent was to morally (as well as economically) delegitimize the notion of that Asian capitalism might offer an alternative to American capitalism

And the clear focus of the crony capitalism critique was corruption.  Like the idea of cronyism, the idea of corruption, too, has both an economic and a moral aspect to it (see, e.g., ‘moral hazard’), and this gives it a particular appeals as a both an economic and a moral delegitimizing device.  Along these lines, it is no accident, I believe, that the Asian Financial Crisis corresponded with the take off of the global anticorruption movement.  I believe that movement was strongly catalyzed by the discourse of corruption that American observers used to describe and explain that crisis.

In fact, however, as an economic phenomenon, the Asian Financial Crisis appears to have had nothing to do with anything resembling ‘crony capitalism’.  It is widely held today that it was caused overwhelmingly by particular dynamics of international capital.  (To be clear, this is not to imply that Asian ‘relational capitalism’ (my preferred term) does not affect Asian economic performance at all, it is simply to point out that whatever its effects, the Asian Financial Crisis was not one of them.)  This was even widely argued outside of the United States, even during the crisis.  Nevertheless, attribution of the crisis to crony capitalism remained (and to some extent remains) almost unchallenged, particularly in policy circles, despite never having had any significant empirical foundation, and having significant evidence against it.  This lack of empirical foundation suggests to me that the principal appeal of the crony capitalism argument lay in considerable part in its moral implications rather than its economic utility – i.e., lay in its implicit celebration of the moral superiority of American capitalism.

As noted above, I also believe that more than anything else, it was the Asian Financial Crisis that appears to have catalyzed the global anticorruption movement.  If this is the case, than it argues that global anticorruption movement reflected in some part an interest in moral condemnation.  At least insofar as southeast Asia, I don’t think I am alone in my suspicions in this regard.  I know a fair number of highly-regarded scholars of Asian development, including scholars not based in Asia, who share my suspicions. 

But on the other hand, this may also be a situation that is somewhat distinct to Asia, given the distinct threat that Asian capitalism has posed to the intellectual authority of American capitalism.  It may just be that being an Asia-focused scholar renders me, and perhaps us, particularly sensitive to this moral aspect.  Perhaps we are even overly sensitive – we all have our obsessions. 

Asia in not the only place I see evidence of this moral superiority dynamic.  Nor is it solely a Western dynamic, either.  I feel it, for example, in the EUs response to the recent Euro crisis, and in particular how more than a few German and American commentators have been so quick to jump on ‘corruption’ to justify imposing pronounced economic hardships on the populations of Greece, Spain, Italy and Portugal.  Again, I know that I am not alone in this regard.  Another example of this, I believe, is found in the movement for Catalan independence from Spain, which uses Spanish ‘corruption’ to advance claims of Catalonia's moral superiority, which is then tied into claims justifying independence.  Middle-class urban activists in Thailand have also used claims of Thaksin-ite ‘corruption’ to delegitimize, for Western eyes, first morally and through that politically, what I would argue are the legitimate political interests of the poorer, rural populations that supported him, and even to gain some Western support for their efforts to overthrow a democratically elected government.  Somewhat paradoxically, Singapore has also sometimes appealed to its lack of corruption to advances claims of moral superiority vis-à-vis ‘the West’.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the thoughtful reply Michael. I've posted a response over at the Global Anticorruption Blog, which can be found here: