Three Lessons on Institutions and Incentives (Part 4): Institutions and the Rule of Law

Daron Acemoglu & James Robinson call the set of regulations that obstruct innovation “extractive institutions.” Of course, here again, extractive institutions are less harmful than the total absence of institutions. Not every change in the status quo can be interpreted as “creative destruction” or “entrepreneurship.” As Friedrich Hayek pointed out in Law, Legislation and Freedom, so that the most mutually compatible plans can be carried out, it is necessary that a well-defined set of expectations be systematically frustrated: the usurpations, the frauds, collusions, the paramilitary bands, etc., etc. The main thing is to have institutions that guarantee a minimum of order. Now, many times the institutions manage to be put into effect as a result of having the consensus of a certain number of interests that see in the law an opportunity to extract benefits. It is the distinction between Acemoglu & Robinson between the already mentioned “extractive institutions” and “inclusive institutions.” The latter are constituted by that set of rules that formally are equal for all and that materially protect private property, the value of money, competition understood as freedom of entry to markets, among other values ​​of modern capitalism.

The distinction between extractive and inclusive institutions can find its parallelism in the expressions of “Rule by Law” and “Rule of Law.” The first consists on the accommodation of general and abstract normative statements with a second intention: to benefit a group at the expense of society as a whole. It is common to hear the criticism that the law has a false neutrality and that therefore any defense of the “Rule of Law” must be ideological (in the Marxist sense of the term). However, what distinguishes the concept of “Rule of Law” from “Rule by Law” is that, for the first of the terms, the consequences are unlikely to be predicted in terms of their particular and even more individual, while the second has an intentionality, declared or hidden.

To give an example, the procedural due process has such a degree of abstraction that it can hardly be predicted who will benefit from those proceedings. However, a law that prohibits the importation of a product of domestic manufacture clearly aims to redistribute resources from consumers to the local producers (although this type of regulation usually also generates consequences that are very difficult to foresee and often contrary to its original intentional).

Critics of the Rule of Law state that it is not neutral, because it protects exclusively the interests of the proprietors. However, such criticism loses sight of the fact that in the Modernity, any inhabitant, even those who are not citizens, can have access to the right to property, regardless of whether or not they belong to a certain caste, class, or social class. This, unlike the legal and political systems of the so-called Ancien Régime, which limited access to private property in perpetuity and irrevocably to a certain group of people, or even more, to a certain clan or group of families. It does not matter if, in Modernity, a person does not own any particular good, as long as he can count on the expectation of being able to become one at some time. In this sense, private property understood in the modern sense as that right that any inhabitant can enjoy from having stability in their possessions to the point of only being stripped of it by their own consent or by following the procedural due process.

This unlike laws protecting infant industries, professions or trades, or promotion of certain activities that are deemed as socially necessary or valuable, which establish a regime of transfers of resources from one sector of society to another. As the School of Public Choice indicates, such laws encourage “lobbying” and reduce the efficiency in the allocation of resources. In such institutional arrangements, individuals and businesses do not prosper through the discipline of serving the consumer, but through political agreements. Economic agents continue to maximize, but at the expense of regulations that deliberately establish certain winners (the owners of protected activities) and certain losers (consumers and potential producers who are denied access to protected activities). Under these circumstances, the citizenry begins to perceive an arbitrary sense in the norms and have no moral issues with challenging them (any contraband, without commercial purposes, is a clear example of this). Obviously, when non-compliance with standards becomes so extensive, regulations become ineffective. Moreover, as James M. Buchanan put it in his brief essay “A policy in the interests of producers,” the stagnation generated by protectionism means that the winners of such a system – the protected producers – turn out to be less rich than they would be in an open and competitive institutional framework.

Sometimes protectionism seeks its foundation in a mistaken theory of “original accumulation.” (Joseph Schumpeter ruled out the validity of such proposals by pointing out that, although those could have had some basis until the 19th century, the development of capital markets made this theory completely obsolete.)

However, neither Douglass North, nor William Easterly, nor Acemoglu & Robinson, deal with the problem of original accumulation. They prefer to encompass such phenomena within the set of erroneous theories that serve to justify policies arising from political agreements in polarized societies. This means that a certain institutional arrangement, an economic growth policy, a stabilization program, a constitutional reform, foreign policy and so on, in a polarized society is not inspired by abstract and formal principles but in concrete goals that benefit certain sectors of society above others.

The examples of polarized societies, to which Easterly and Acemoglu & Robinson turn, come mostly from African countries since these are mostly created in the process of decolonization and comprise different ethnic groups and languages ​​within themselves, so polarization is much more evident: certain policies benefit a certain ethnic group over another. Easterly specifically cites the case of an African nation in which an ethnic group that represents 10% of the population lives in the region where a certain commodity is produced and whose export generates large revenues and, in the meantime, the government is elected, with some exceptions, by 90% of the remaining population, which imposes export rights on the said commodity, whose collection is destined to industrialization plans that systematically fail.

It is often tempting to explain the failure of such industrialization plans for the corruption evidenced in their execution. In fact, corruption cases are verified, but public policy would also fail even if those involved were incorruptible. Many times bad policies destroy much more wealth than political corruption. Corruption implies a transfer of resources and, therefore, an inefficient allocation of resources, while bad public policies result in the destruction of wealth.

However, examples of polarized societies in African countries can generate confusion around the main message of The Elusive Quest for Growth and Why Nations Fail. The economic performance of nations has nothing to do with geography, culture, or lack of preparation of the ruling elites to draw the plans of government. Easterly holds the main responsibility for the rise and fall of nations in incentives, while Acemoglu & Robinson point to the institutions that establish such incentive schemes. Regarding the opinion of Douglass C. North, although his line of research can lend itself to a “culturalist” interpretation, he himself recognizes the disruptive change of formal institutions as a determining factor of economic performance.

In summary, the three works discussed here have as a common denominator the role of incentives as a determinant of the economic performance of countries, above culture (which North would call “informal institutions”), geography, or the level of education of its elites. However, the case of polarized societies is presented as a critical point of such approaches.

José Luis de Imaz in Los que mandan (The ones who command) had defined politics as the activity consisting of articulating diverse interests according to a coherent plan of government. The definition of Imaz deserves to be put back into use, since it addresses the problem of polarization and also because its double edge allows to tie the loose ends left by the visions that we can group, with greater or lesser precision, under the “neo- institutionalist” (clearly the case of North, although it would be pending to discuss the label for Easterly and Acemoglu & Robinson).

Notwithstanding, that polarization is manifest in tribal or caste societies does not mean that it is not present in other societal forms. In the United States, the north and south; in Europe, the separatist movements; in Argentina, the interior and Buenos Aires. With greater or lesser intensity, manifestly or latently, politics is always structured on a space of tension of interests in competition for resources. Those who frequent the work of Carl Schmitt often claim that trade and law are “civilized” means for the exchange and dispute of such resources, politics and war are on the other side of the same question in terms of intensity of the conflict.

However, the term institutions – which define incentives – does not refer only to deliberate political agreements in pursuit of a specific purpose, such as a given public policy. The concept of institution also concerns a series of abstract and general principles whose final result at a particular level no one can foresee, because their level of abstraction imposes an insurmountable limit for the knowledge of its concrete consequences.

[Editor’s note: Here is Part 3; Here is the entire, Longform Essay]

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