In the libertarian magazine Reason, Financial Times columnist Tim Harford looks at disincentives for investing in economic infrastructure in Cameroon.
Many people have an optimistic view of politicians and civil servants—that they are all serving the people and doing their best to look after the interests of the country. Other people are more cynical, suggesting that many politicians are incompetent and often trade off the public interest against their own chances of re-election. The economist Mancur Olson proposed a working assumption that government’s motivations are darker still, and from it theorized that stable dictatorships should be worse for economic growth than democracies, but better than sheer instability.
Olson supposed that governments are simply bandits, people with the biggest guns who will turn up and take everything. That’s the starting point of his analysis—a starting point you will have no trouble accepting if you spend five minutes looking around you in Cameroon….
When [President Paul] Biya came to power in 1982, he inherited colonial-era roads that had yet to fall apart completely. If he had inherited a country without any infrastructure, it would have been in his interest to build it up to some extent. Because the infrastructure was already in place, Biya needed to calculate whether it was worth maintaining, or whether he could simply live off the legacy of Cameroon’s colonial rulers. In 1982 he probably thought the roads would last into the 1990s, which was as long as he could reasonably have expected to hold onto the reins of power. So he decided to live off the capital of the past and never bothered to invest in any type of infrastructure for his people. As long as there was enough to get him through his rule, why bother spending money that could otherwise go right into his personal retirement fund?…
Mancur Olson showed that kleptocracy at the top stunts the growth of poor countries. Having a thief for president doesn’t necessarily spell doom; the president might prefer to boost the economy and then take a slice of a bigger pie. But in general, looting will be widespread either because the dictator is not confident of his tenure or because he needs to allow others to steal in order to keep their support.
The rot starts with government, but it afflicts the entire society. There’s no point investing in a business because the government will not protect you against thieves. (So you might as well become a thief yourself.) There’s no point in paying your phone bill because no court can make you pay. (So there’s no point being a phone company.) There’s no point setting up an import business because the customs officers will be the ones to benefit. (So the customs office is underfunded and looks even harder for bribes.) There’s no point getting an education because jobs are not handed out on merit. (And in any case, you can’t borrow money for school fees because the bank can’t collect on the loan.)
It is not news that corruption and perverse incentives matter. But perhaps it is news that the problem of twisted rules and institutions explains not just a little bit of the gap between Cameroon and rich countries but almost all of the gap. Countries like Cameroon fall far below their potential even considering their poor infrastructure, low investment, and minimal education. Worse, the web of corruption foils every effort to improve the infrastructure, attract investment, and raise educational standards.