Mar 27th 2009, 21:36 by Charlemagne
THE provocative title of this posting is not my own. It is the headline from a thought-provoking, if not completely convincing, opinion piece published today in Spain's best newspaper, El País . The author, Víctor Lapuente Giné, is a Spanish political scientist transplanted to the chilly, rigorous world of the University of Gothenburg's Quality of Government Institute.
Against a familiar backdrop of multiple scandals in Spain, many of them involving property deals and local government, Dr Lapuente Giné asks why countries like Spain, France, Italy or Portugal "have for years shown levels of corruption and governance closer to those of developing nations with authoritarian governments, than advanced capitalist democracies, which have belonged to the OECD for decades".
The article tries to isolate some factors which distinguish Spain, say, from countries with very low levels of reported corruption, such as Sweden. What caught my eye was that the article, early on, seeks to discount theories based around cultural difference. Dr Lapuente Giné writes that it is no more acceptable to say corruption is just "in our culture" than it was acceptable when people used to say that Catholic or Mediterranean countries were unfit for democracy.
Now, my experience, when asking people from different European countries, is that culture does come up often as an explanation for the presence or lack of corruption. To cite some personal examples, a senior central European politician told a group of reporters, including Charlemagne, at a recent Brussels dinner that his (Roman Catholic) country should aim to work closely with Protestant countries from northern Europe, in order to promote good governance. The problem with Catholicism, this politician said—only half jokingly—was that it allows for confession and absolution, so that sinning is not a fatal activity, but something that can be worked around. Equally, I have heard in ex-communist countries many times that corruption is a habit, that was born in dictatorial times when thwarting the state felt like an act of resistance. Indeed, I have heard the same thing in Greece many times, but this time harking back to the centuries of Ottoman rule, during which time breaking the rules was a patriotic act against foreign occupiers.
The flipside is an argument I heard in Sweden from the liberal thinker and writer Johan Norberg , who told me once that the relative lack of corruption in his country is at least partly based on the fact that Sweden was never a feudal country, with large landowners lording it over disenfranchised peasants. Instead, small yeoman farmers with their own small land holdings were governed at the local level by their peers: their brothers, cousins and neighbours. So cheating the state, by dodging taxes, say, was cheating your own.
But Dr Lapuente Giné calls cultural arguments "dangerous and intellectually unsatisfying", because they muddle cause and effect. A growing number of studies show that countries develop a culture of distrust between different branches of society as a consequence of high levels of corruption, he writes.
He prefers a structural explanation, above all turning on the number of party political appointees who work in local government. In a typical mid-sized European city of 100,000 to 500,000 people, he writes, perhaps two or three people, including the mayor, depend on the victory of a certain party for their jobs. In a mid-sized Spanish city, the party that wins local elections can give senior posts to hundreds of people. This means that people need to get rich quick, in case they lose their jobs at the next election, he suggests. It also means that corrupt elected politicians need not fear being denounced by impartial, independent civil servants.
I am no expert on Spanish municipal government, so cannot say if this thesis holds water. But the article is less convincing when it heaps praise on the professionalism of American local government, saying that the "stratospheric" levels of corruption witnessed in American city halls in the late 19th and early 20th centuries are no more, thanks to the managerial, non-partisan way that today's American cities are run. That would seem to me to ignore such shining examples of machine politics as Chicago, say. Not to mention the city where I spent three happy years, Washington DC, which was as badly run a place as I have ever lived.
A final interesting point. The article does not recommend creating a bureaucratic elite, with jobs for life. Indeed, it says that reform in places like Spain faces two main sources of resistance: party patronage machines, and the jobs-for-life civil service lobby.
Empirical evidence shows us that you do not need administrations full of employees with permanent contracts to reduce corruption. For example, the two least corrupt countries in 2008, Sweden and New Zealand, scrapped jobs for life for most public sector posts years ago, instead applying the same labour laws as apply to any private sector job