IMF chief Christine Lagarde raised hackles this week when she suggested one way Greeks could get themselves out of the pickle they're in would be to cut back on their national sport of tax-evasion. She also suggested her tears of pity would be better spent on Nigerien children, forced to walk two hours to school and sit three to a chair, than on profligate Greeks.
The Niger comparison was interesting, as it suffers from some of the same problems as Greece, but at astronomically higher levels. Among them is the one which gives the IMF fits, that stubborn, impossible-to-remove kudzu, the sinister C-word: Corruption.
It has become gospel among international policy-makers that corruption is a big problem, but a fixable one. Bad laws = corruption. Good laws = no corruption. They thus traipse around the planet giving PowerPoint presentations on how to open your very own Anti-Corruption Ministry, sure that they're leaving little Swedens on the Sahara and Englands on the Euphrates in their wake.
With just a bit of HBD knowledge, a policy-maker might ask: What if corruption were not a product of laws, but of men? What if corruption came from men's beliefs, their character traits, their deepest biological instincts? What if it is our natural state? What if it can't be fixed? What then?
Besides the 'bad-laws' fallacy, a second error made by policy-makers is the 'bad-leaders' fallacy. The poor honest folks in Country X suffer terribly because their leaders are so corrupt. And yet coup/election after coup/election, as if by magic, one bad leader after another comes to power. Unless these people are being airlifted in from a foreign land, one can presume they are made of the same stuff as their countrymen.
In addition, what the throw-the-bums-out crowd fails to realize is that in corrupt countries, everyone (or almost) is on the take. The same character traits that drive government ministers to accept suitcases full of cash are also likely to be found in small shopkeepers who say, 'Do you want a receipt for that? Are you sure? (wink wink)', as well as the customer who responds, 'No no, of course not! (wink wink)'
Lagarde's admonishment to 'Pay your taxes!' is merely spitting into the wind. In a country where the average taxpayer can buy off the average tax inspector with a sufficiently fat envelope, what precisely is she hoping for? Who watches the watchers? This has led some Eurocrats to cry, 'Send in foreign tax inspectors!', which would be amusing were it not so disturbing. Is a country whose government officials are under the control of a foreign power not by definition a colony?
We are thus led to ask: Corruption, that headache of international policy-makers--is it a behavior, or a state of being?