I’m a big fan of Estonia.
It has a low-rate flat tax, meaning that investors, entrepreneurs, and small-business owners aren’t punished for contributing more to the nation’s economic output.
Now I have another reason to like Estonia.
It’s a role model for how to reduce corruption by shrinking the size and scope of government.
First, some background.
Neil Abrams and Professor Steven Fish have a column in the Washington Post about the seemingly intractable problem of boosting the rule of law in developing and transition economies.
Western aid agencies and scholars agree that the rule of law is required before developing countries can reduce poverty and corruption. For decades, they have supported aid programs designed to help developing countries establish law-based states. …In a rule-of-law state, the rules apply even to the rulers, not just the ordinary folks. The rule of law is not the same as democracy. Scores of developing countries have demonstrated that establishing democracy is the easy part. The rule of law is harder to attain. From India and the Philippines to Argentina, democracy coexists with endemic corruption, and elites remain largely exempt from the rules.
They then explain that its well-nigh impossible to create the rule of law in a society that has a big government.
…our research suggests that they have the sequence backward. Before urging governments to adopt the rule of law, they must first advise reformers to take one key step: eliminating the government subsidies that sustain criminal elites and replacing the compromised bureaucrats who patronize them.
Now for the big takeaway from their column: Estonia is the role model for how this can happen.
Our research shows that a few good policies can pave the way for the rule of law. For instance, Estonia’s clean and capable state administration represents a model of post-communist success. But this was not always the case. In 1991, when communism collapsed, Estonia, like other post-Soviet countries, had almost no working institutions and a burgeoning class of economic predators, nor was Estonia economically privileged. In the early post-Soviet years, its income per capita was only 10 to 20 percent higher than that of Russia and Romania and 20 to 30 percent lower than that of Croatia, Slovakia and Hungary. But Estonian leaders acted boldly. …early Estonian governments ended practically all subsidies to state and private enterprises. …in developing countries, state subsidies almost always benefit corrupt elites more than ordinary people. This policy cut off the budding economic criminals who profit from state largesse rather than entrepreneurial aptitude — and made it possible for real entrepreneurs to thrive. Deprived of subsidies, old-guard enterprise directors and crony capitalists could not muster enough political influence to hold governments hostage.
Sadly, other nations are not copying Estonia, in part because the international bureaucracies and national agencies that dispense foreign aid don’t support policies to shrink government in recipient nations.
Unfortunately, Estonia is the exception and not the rule. That’s not for lack of trying on the part of the West. The United States, the European Union, the World Bank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the United Nations have spent billions of dollars for the express purpose of helping countries build a rule of law. …But they’re stumbling. The Western effort assumes that the rule of law will flourish only if developing countries receive enough education, guidance, training and money. In fact, a growing body of research throws such optimism into doubt.
In other words, foreign aid – at best – is useless. And it may be harmful by financing a bigger role for recipient governments.
The authors close by emphasizing the need (assuming genuine rule of law is the goal) to prune the bureaucracy and public sector.
Scholars often treat the rule of law as a prerequisite for market-oriented economic policies such as liberalizing prices and trade and eradicating wasteful subsidies. They’re getting it backward. Instead, first eliminate the subsidies and purge the compromised bureaucrats who stand in the rule of law’s way. This is hard to do. It will provoke tremendous resistance from those who profit from the status quo. But it’s far more realistic and effective than simply encouraging countries to adopt the rule of law.
So what are the implications of this analysis for the United States?
Given that America now ranks below Estonia for rule of law, and given that rule of law is gradually eroding in the United States, the obvious lesson is that the public sector in America needs to shrink.
The real challenge, though, is convincing politicians to give up power.
Professor Glenn Reynolds of the University of Tennessee Law School explains in USA Today that a larger government is good for politicians because it creates opportunities for graft.
The explanation for why politicians don’t do all sorts of reasonable-sounding things usually boils down to “insufficient opportunities for graft.” And, conversely, the reason why politicians choose to do many of the things that they do is … you guessed it, sufficient opportunities for graft. That graft may come in the form of bags of cash, or shady real-estate deals, or “consulting” gigs for a brother-in-law or child, but it may also come in broader terms of political support.
Glenn notes that there’s an entire school of thought in economics that analyzes this unfortunate tendency of politicians to conspire with interest groups at the expense of taxpayers and consumers.
…there’s a whole field of economics based on this view, called “Public Choice Economics.” Nobel prize winning economist James Buchanan referred to public choice economics as “politics without romance.” Instead of being selfless civil servants motivated solely by the public good, public choice economics assumes that politicians are, like other human beings, heavily influenced by self-interest. …You pick a car because it’s the best car for you that you can afford. Politicians pick policies because they’re the best policies — for them — that they can achieve. …the entire system is designed — by politicians, naturally — to make it harder for voters to keep track of what politicians are doing. The people who have a bigger stake in things — the real estate developers or construction unions — have an incentive to keep track of things, and to influence them.
Having received my Ph.D. from George Mason University, home of the Center for the Study of Public Choice, I echo Glenn’s comments about the value of this theory.
So what’s the moral of the story?
As summarized by Professor Reynolds, bigger government means more corruption and smaller government means less corruption.
The more the government does and the more decisions that are relegated to bureaucrats, “guidance” and other forms of decisionmaking that are far from the public eye, the more freedom politicians have to pursue their own interest at the expense of the public — all while, of course, claiming to do just the opposite.
Now let’s look at some real-world examples from Washington.
By the way, I’m not writing to specifically condemn Obama and his team, even though I’m quite confident that the Chicago machine produces people who excel at unethical behavior.
That being said, most Washington corruption today seems associated with the Democrat Party for the simple reason that Democrats control the bureaucracy.
For instance, here are some of the key points from a New York Times report.
The State Department, under Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton, created an arrangement for her longtime aide and confidante Huma Abedin to work for private clients as a consultant while serving as a top adviser in the department. Ms. Abedin did not disclose the arrangement — or how much income she earned — on her financial report. It requires officials to make public any significant sources of income.
To be blunt, this stinks to high heaven.
…the picture that emerges from interviews and records suggests a situation where the lines were blurred between Ms. Abedin’s work in the high echelons of one of the government’s most sensitive executive departments and her role as a Clinton family insider. While continuing her work at the State Department, in the latter half of 2012, she also worked for Teneo, a strategic consulting firm, which was founded by Doug Band, a former adviser to President Bill Clinton. Teneo has advised corporate clients like Coca-Cola and MF Global, the collapsed brokerage firm run by Jon S. Corzine, a former governor of New Jersey.
The Daily Caller also has been doing some first-rate work on the cronyism and corruption inside Washington.
One of their stories, for instance, exposed the left-wing connections of the supposedly “apolitical” bureaucrat at the heart of the IRS scandal.
IRS Exempt Organizations Division director Lois G. Lerner, who has been described as “apolitical” in mainstream press coverage of the IRS scandal, is married to tax attorney Michael R. Miles, a partner at the law firm Sutherland Asbill & Brennan.
And why does that matter?
The 400-attorney firm hosted an organizing meeting at its Atlanta office for people interested in helping with voter registration for the Obama re-election campaign. …Lerner personally signed the tax-exemption approval for a shady charity run by Obama’s half-brother, after an inexplicably brief one-month application process.
Time to wrap this up.
I enjoy Mark Steyn for his biting humor, but he makes a very serious and relevant point is his latest column.
A civil “civil service” requires small government. Once government is ensnared in every aspect of life a bureaucracy grows increasingly capricious. The U.S. tax code ought to be an abomination to any free society, but the American people have become reconciled to it because of a complex web of so-called exemptions that massively empower the vast shadow state of the permanent bureaucracy. Under a simple tax system, your income is a legitimate tax issue. Under the IRS, everything is a legitimate tax issue: The books you read, the friends you recommend them to. There are no correct answers, only approved answers.
I made a similar point, arguing that you can’t have a competent government unless it’s a small government.
But as the public sector expands, effective management becomes much harder.
And, as discussed in an interview with John Stossel, you also get corruption, mixed with incompetence and thuggery.
Let’s close by re-issuing my video explaining how big government enables pervasive corruption. It’s never been more timely and appropriate.
P.S. There are some countries with big governments that are not plagued by corruption. The Nordic nations, for instance, rank at or near the top in many economic indications, including high-quality rule of law. Though it’s worth noting that these jurisdictions scored highly in these areas before the burden of government was expanded.