Saturday, August 04, 2007

The Kleptocracy

Right now I'm reading a book called Guns, Germs and Steel, in which the remarkable scientist Jared Diamond attempts to explain why Eurasian states and cultures came to dominate the modern world.
His argument is that ecological factors, not cultural or political ones, conspired to prevent people in the Americas, Africa and Australasia from developing strong agricultural societies capable of supporting bureaucrats and soldiers, or develop technology, or become resistant to diseases caused by germs. In short, the reason why Pizarro, the Spanish conquistador, captured Atahuallpa, the Inca emperor, was because the Spaniard had control of guns, germs and steel.
So far so obvious, but in exploring the reasons why it was not Atahuallpa who conquered King Charles of Spain, Diamond explores very interesting territory.
One of the most interesting theories Diamond tackles is the formation of states. A state, he says, is formed when populations reach a critical size. States are by nature organised kleptocracies where a class of privileged elites steal from the rest to maintain power. Any group of people numbering above a hundred thousand inevitably develops into a kleptocracy, the egalitarian roots of human society -as it began in family 'bands'- simply can't effectively manage the numbers of people.
American economist Mancur Olson also touches on this subject. The development of government, Olson argues in Power and Prosperity, comes from the incentives offered to the powerful. A 'roving bandit' pillages and takes every bit of produce, leaving destruction in their wake. But a bandit who can be persuaded to become a 'stationary thief' now has an incentive to allow development in return for tribute to prevent him from becoming a rapacious marauder again.
According to both Diamond and Olson, development comes when the kleptocracy has to increase its redistribution in order to maintain a hold on power. As Diamond says: "The difference between George Washington and President Mobutu of Zaire is simply one of degree."
Mainstream development theory says to be "developed" is to have a functioning judiciary, a free press, and the rule of law, created by 'perfect' people, to counter the influence of corrupt elites. This is a fundamentally different approach from one that says "development" is an illusion created by a cunning band of the powerful, who concede in order to maintain a grip on tribute.
Many development practitioners say a free press is essential to economic development. The free press is a watchdog on corruption, the theory goes.
Picture the scene: A senior member of a key institution is holding a regular press briefing. Journalists from more than one paper present start asking awkward questions about something that has gone wrong. The official offers the journalists a healthy-sized bribe in an attempt to get them to drop the story. If the journalists take the bribe, it's a done deal, nothing really more to be said.
But even if, in this *fictional* example, I'm happy to tell you the journalists present refused the bribe and ran the story, our paper would in the circumstances not be able to expose the bribe-giver in an attempt to prevent any other official from doing the same. The press itself will resist making that positive change, and for very sound reason: If we were to go that far, the paper would open itself to an absurd amount of risk.
As an editor told me: "Its one thing to not take a bribe, but it's totally another to tell people about it. We cannot be sure that in the future those people who refused won't be bought off again, and deny the thing we exposed ever happened. Better just to leave it at that." The fear of being violently silenced, silences.
By weakening trust in other participants of the game, over time the kleptocracy wins. Even though in this entirely *fictional* example, the journalists refused the bribe and wrote the story, the system remains unchanged, and the press decidedly 'un free' as the prospect for future control remains.

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Blogger Afolabi said...

this post was enlightening and gave a solid explanation to some of the observations I make on the way societies are structured.

5:40 am  
Blogger Isaac said...

Great piece. I've read the book Gun, Steal and Germs too. You've summarized it a lot but you still explained how the current societies caame to be!

4:54 pm  

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