Oct 142012

The following is from the opening paragraph of a post by Francis Fukuyama.   But later in the article he lists control of corruption as an aspect of state power.  I would have thought it a limit or check on state power rather than a use of state power.   Trying to think this through…

It is a curious fact that in contemporary American political science, very few people want to study the state, that is, the functioning of executive branches and their bureaucracies. … [M]ost people are interested in studying political institutions that limit or check power—democratic accountability and rule of law—but very few people pay attention to the institution that accumulates and uses power, the state.

via The Strange Absence of the State in Political Science | Francis Fukuyama.

Perhaps this is a good time to examine the principle that government can be inefficient or it can be corrupt, but it can’t be neither.

If in the Department of Plumber Licenses you give bureaucrats the power to make decisions on their own, they can act very quickly.  A wannabe plumber calls up saying he needs a license, and the bureaucrat can issue one as soon as he gets the name and phone number.   But if give the bureaucrat the power to make this decision on his own, you also give him the ability to favor his friends or political allies and disfavor the others.  You give him the ability to trade favors.  This is corruption.

The way you prevent this kind of corruption is by making government inefficient.   You create a complicated set of rules to determine who should get a license and who shouldn’t.   The wannabe plumber has to fill out forms to prove that he has been trained in a certified, approved manner and that he doesn’t have anything in his background that would keep the government from giving him its imprimatur. It takes time and money to provide all this evidence.   No one bureaucrat is equipped to evaluate all of these forms, so you institute a multi-step approval process by which the form goes from one department to another for approval.    This all takes time.  And additional questions may come up at various steps along the way.   It’s a way to avoid corruption, but it’s not the path to efficiency.  A process like this can be corrupt, too, but with a proper system for appeals you have a chance of designing it to avoid the corruption by which bureaucrats can arbitrarily dispense or deny favors.

A corruption-free system of plumber licensing is not a system by which the state can operate quickly and efficiently.  This is why I find it puzzling that anyone would list the following items together as “aspects of state capacity”:

  • government effectiveness
  • regulatory quality
  • stability and absence of violence
  • control of corruption

Good topic to be discussing, though.