What’s Worse than Corruption?

Visiting Ireland, Washington Post columnist Steven Pearlstein writes about the death of former prime minister Charles Haughey:

In recent years, Haughey’s reputation has been badly tarnished by revelations that he diverted millions of dollars from party coffers to finance his lordly lifestyle, that he carried on an affair for years with a newspaper gossip columnist, that he tapped the phones of political journalists, and that he had to sell his large Georgian estate to pay more than $6 million in back taxes.

But Haughey was also “the father of the Celtic economic miracle … that transformed Ireland from one of the poorest countries in Europe to one of its most prosperous and dynamic.” So the column raises an interesting question: Would you rather have an honest, abstemious Puritan who taxes, regulates, and plans an economy into stagnation or worse – or a high-living, philandering cream-skimmer who transforms your economy from the world’s leading exporter of talent into a Celtic tiger?

In his book Prosperity versus Planning: How Government Stifles Economic Growth, David Osterfeld discussed two kinds of corruption. As John Mukum Mbaku explains, Osterfeld “argued that in a heavily regulated economy, one can find two distinct types of corruption: ‘expansive corruption,’ which involves activities that improve the competitiveness and flexibility of the market; and ‘restrictive corruption,’ which limits opportunities for productive and socially beneficial exchange.” In other words, when a trade official takes a bribe to allow imports in, or a regulator issues a business license for a piece of the action, they’re making economic activity happen. But when a regulator embezzles public funds or takes a bribe to prevent a business from opening, he is reducing competition and economic activity. So the problem isn’t corruption per se; it’s corruption that restricts productive activity.

Haughey’s case is slightly different: wiretapping journalists and evading his own taxes are not market-expanding activities. So maybe he offers the political choice in starker relief: was Ireland better off with a corrupt prime minister who kick-started economic growth than it would have been with an honest socialist who kept Ireland in poverty? I’d say so. They should have gotten Helmut Kohl to speak at his funeral. Kohl could have made his own case there: I served 16 years as German chancellor, I ended communism in East Germany and reunified the country, and along the way, to stay in power, I helped my party skim a few million off arms sales and privatization deals. Not as good a case as Haughey would have, since Haughey opened up his country’s economy and improved growth, while Kohl allowed the German economy to slow and stagnate–but I’ll bet a lot of Germans still think it was overall a good bargain.