You Say “Corruption,” I Say “Potahto”

Friday’s Washington Post carried both a front-page story and an op-ed about corruption in the Afghan government.  This may seem like an odd choice of a second post for a blog intended to defend and further the aims of Liberalism, because your author humbly suggests that looking at extortion, graft and bribes as simply another front in the War in Afghanistan or as a benchmark for our dubious nation-building enterprise there is self-defeating.  This isn’t just true in the practical terms of alienating intelligence contacts or discrediting our ally, but it may represent a fundamental failure to grasp governing dynamics in that country.

As Rory Stewart said last summer in the London Review of Books, it’s doubtful we really perceive Afghanistan as what it is—a fragmented, impoverished country where political activity tends to be based on personal contacts and credible demonstrations of efficacy.  In a situation like this, we shouldn’t be surprised if the President’s brother holds a government office (or even to use the easy loans taken out from a major bank with low capital reserves to amass a fortune in real estate in Dubai) simply because the President knows him well.  Afghanistan’s new institutions, substantially funded and sometimes coerced in their policy adaptations by outsiders, also simply make it difficult to differentiate corruption from the process of power consolidation.

Douglas North, John Wallis and Barry Weingast published a book called Violence and Social Orders last year.  The book makes a novel argument about the “natural” form of human social organization.  Rejecting the hypothetical “states of nature” offered by Social Contract theorists such as Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, the authors claim that in the wake of the Neolithic Revolution and the emergence of supra-tribal human groups, the natural form of government is aristocracy.  Fragile and impoverished societies can only develop under the auspices of their specialists in organized violence.  Note that these are not “monopolists of the legitimate use of violence” in the Weberian sense; the Weberian state is not natural but actually represents consolidation to the doorstep of an “open-access order” characterized by democratic institutions relatively independent market institutions and, crucially, equal protection under the law.  The natural state generally only begins to consolidate the latter 2 of these characteristics by the time of transition to an open-access order, and this transition is usually made with the cooperation of the aristocratic class itself, due to its interest in the greater stability and impartiality of government.

Afghanistan represents a fragile natural state.  Literally a managed solution to the prospect of anarchy, government is entirely based upon personal contact, personally-led institutions, and personal incentives.  This is close to our definition of “corruption.”  According to the World Bank Afghanistan’s per capita income in 2008 was $370, meaning that the average Afghan just emerged in that year from extreme poverty, defined as living on less than $1 a day.  Even more inauspiciously, a 2006 World Bank report found that Afghanistan has produced at least 90% of the World’s opium since that year, that drug sales gross the bare majority of Afghanistan’s domestic product, and that efforts to police the drug trade have literally created opportunities for official corruption.

Corruption among Afghan officials will inevitably lead to grumbling over here, in light of an insurgency without a foreseeable resolution, diverted foreign aid funds and Afghanistan’s immense opium trade.  But with most of the country’s domestic product coming from an illegal drug and the largest share of legitimate income being from NATO countries that are already discussing troop withdrawals, government ministers will seek to build up a war chest, whether it be to lavish funds on supportive neighborhoods, to bribe counterparts or hire underlings, or to arm oneself for battle with a different Cabinet minister.  We should consider how to police the episodes of corruption that represent an actual hedge against the future of the country while conceptualizing (and tolerating) the Machiavellian maneuvers that could allow a governing equilibrium in Afghanistan to emerge organically.  Maybe the decisive factor should be whether all the bribes and protection money flow out of the country.

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