Economic Growth and Corruption

In my latest paper in Economic Affairs, I wrote,

Drawing on the EFW Index, Brennan (2016a)…points to a strong positive correlation between a country’s degree of economic freedom and its lack of public sector corruption. Granted, a lack of corruption could very well give rise to market reforms and increased economic freedom instead of the other way around. However, recent research on China’s anti-corruption reforms (Ding et al. 2017; Li et al. 2017) suggests that markets may actually pave the way for anti-corruption reforms (pg. 425).

Furthermore,

Market liberalisation can also have indirect effects on war and violence. For example, Neudorfer and Theuerkauf (2014) explore the effects of public sector corruption on ethnic violence by analysing 81 to 121 countries between 1984 and 2007. They find that corruption has a robust positive effect…on the risk of ethnic civil war. When the evidence provided in the previous sections by Brennan (2016a) and Lin et al. (2017) is considered, we find that market liberalisation deters corruption and, consequently, ethnic violence (pg. 429).

Research suggests that economic growth may reduce corruption:

The traditional explanation for this relationship has been the theory articulated by Wolfenson above – corruption increases the cost and risk of business activity, thereby deterring investment and depressing growth that could have lifted citizens out of poverty (Mauro 1995, Wei 1999).

However, there is an alternative possibility that has received less attention among development practitioners and academics. The strong relationship between income and growth may result from exactly the opposite causal relationship – countries may be growing out of corruption (Tresiman 2002). Over time, economic growth reduces both the incentives for government officials to extract bribes and firms’ willingness to pay them. Some scholars of developed countries have discussed this possibility in terms of a ‘life cycle’ theory with corruption peaking at early stages of development and declining as countries industrialise (Huntington 1968, Theobald 1990, Ramirez 2013). However, there has been little work either testing for this empirical link from growth to corruption, or laying out the specific mechanisms that could generate the link.

The authors continue:

The key theoretical insight of our argument is that the share of bribes that officials will choose to extract as rents depends on a firm’s ability to move and set up business in a different location. Ask for too much, and firms that have the ability to do so, will simply pull up anchor and head to safer harbours. Because officials know this, they are likely to set a bribe amount that is just below the cost of moving.

Building on that insight, we show that as firms grow the cost of moving should decline relative to firm size. The fixed cost of moving becomes less expensive relative to revenue, and more and more firms have the opportunity to escape the bribe requests of officials in their locality. Corrupt officials faced with a sudden growth surge must lower their bribe rates, or face losing their key providers of employment and tax payers to competitors.

…The theory we propose has important policy implications. To the extent this theoretical mechanism is important, rather than focusing on politically difficult institutional changes to combat corruption, resources might be better spent on policies that facilitate capital mobility across subnational jurisdictions. Providing clear titles to business premises, for instance, enables entrepreneurs to sell and recoup the full market value of land. Such businesses are more mobile than renters or owners with insecure titles, who risk significant losses if they try to escape corruption by fleeing across the border.

Drawing on “an annual survey funded by USAID and administered by the Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce and Industry,” the researchers find “that the average bribe rate decreases as GDP per capita increases” and “that large firms actually pay lower bribe rates, which is what our theory predicts. Firms with higher revenues are more put out by a high bribe rate, since it increases the amount of bribes they must pay dramatically. To retain them then, officials must push their bribe rate lower.” 

Then, using “a census of firms conducted by Vietnam’s General Statistical Office (GSO) [to] calculate aggregate employment at the province-industry-year level,” the authors

show that exogenous industry-wide performance is indeed a strong predictor of a firm’s performance. A doubling of total employment in the industry is associated with a 1.6 percentage point reduction in the bribe rate, or about 42% of the mean level. Moreover, the effect is more pronounced for highly mobile firms. The magnitude of the effect of growth on bribe reductions is 17% larger for firms in possession of a Land Use Rights Certificate, which facilitates the sale of their business premises. Similarly, the effect is 20% greater for firms that already have branch operations in other provinces, and therefore possess knowledge and experience that could facilitate movement.

These effects survive a battery of robustness tests and alternative specifications, providing compelling evidence that growth can directly reduce corruption.

In short, economic growth can decrease corruption by undermining the power of officials to extract bribes. But this is likely part of a virtuous feedback loop. For example, a 2017 paper 

exploit[s] spatial variation in randomized anti-corruption audits related to government procurement contracts in Brazil to assess how corruption affects resource allocation, firm performance, and the local economy. After an anti-corruption crackdown, regions experience more entrepreneurship, improved access to finance, and higher levels of economic activity. Using firms involved in corrupt business with the municipality, we find that two channels explain these facts: allocation of resources to less efficient firms, and distortions in government dependent firms. The second channel dominates, as after the audits government dependent firms grow and reallocate resources within the organization (pg. 31). 

As I state in the beginning of my paper,

Of course, it is far easier to demonstrate correlation than causation, and while some studies do find markets playing a causal role in moral development, most simply establish a positive relationship. However, findings that ‘merely’ demonstrate positive correlations should be interpreted in light of the feedback loops: even if moral behaviours are foundational and give rise to market systems (instead of vice versa), market systems in turn reinforce these virtues by imbuing them with value. As Paul Zak (2011, p. 230) explains, ‘Markets are moral in two senses. Moral behavior is necessary for exchange in moderately regulated markets, for example, to reduce cheating without exorbitant transaction costs. In addition, market exchange itself can lead to greater expression of morals in nonmarket settings’ (pg. 423).

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