In 1999, Evans and Rauch showed a strong association between government effectiveness (quality of government)—particularly the presence of a Weberian-like bureaucracy, selected and promoted on merit alone and largely autonomous from private interests—and economic growth. In 1997 and the aftermath of the Washington Consensus controversial reforms the World Bank promoted this finding in its influential World Development Report 1997 as part of its broader paradigm on “institutional quality.” Twenty years of investment in state capacity followed, by means of foreign assistance supporting the quality of public administration as a prerequisite to development. However, most reviews found the results well under expectations. This is hardly surprising, seeing that Max Weber, credited as the first promoter of the importance of bureaucracy as both the end result and the tool of government rationalization in modern times, never took for granted the autonomy of the state apparatus from private interest. He clearly stated that the power using the apparatus is the one steering the bureaucracy itself. In fact, a review of empirical evidence shows that the quality of public administration is endogenous to the quality of government more broadly and therefore can hardly be a solution in problematic contexts. The autonomy of the state from private interest is one of the most difficult objectives to accomplish in the evolution of a state, and few states have managed in contemporary times to match the achievements of Denmark or Switzerland in the 19th century. Two countries, Estonia and Georgia, are exceptional in this regard, but their success argues for the primacy of politics rather than of administration.
Denmark has historically been the first European country to reach control of corruption. Its judiciary and bureaucracy enjoy remarkable autonomy, and freedom of the press is superb. However, recent years have taken away some of the shine and have shown that the country is not immune to corruption risk and the oversight systems in both public and private sector are too weak. Denmark should introduce transparent conflict of interest and financial disclosures for officials and adopt stricter conflict of interest rules. An export oriented economy, it should enforce international anticorruption conventions for its companies operating overseas, from which opportunities for corruption arise.
Why do some societies manage to control corruption so it manifests itself only occasionally, as an exception, while other societies do not and remain systemically corrupt? And is the superior performance of this first group of countries a result of what they do or of who they are? Most current anticorruption strategies presume the former, which is why institutions from developed and well-governed countries are currently being copied all around the world. At least on paper, there are few states left that are missing a constitutional court, some form of checks and balances, or an ombudsman (the number of countries with these elements grew from 47 in 1990, 100 in 2003 and 135 by 2008). Skeptics, on the other hand, endorse the latter view, believing in the cultural determinism of corruption and good governance. More recently, following the failure of the first generation of anticorruption reforms, a middle-ground position has begun to emerge: that the most relevant lessons lie not in what developed countries are currently doing to control corruption but rather in what they have done in thepast, when their societies more strongly resembled the conditions in today’s developing world (Andrews 2008). However, as this subject area is largely unknown to governance scholars and practitioners alike, it is difficult even to estimate the potential value of such historical lessons. I plan to address this gap by asking not how corruption is eradicated but rather how societies have built—over time—systems to protect their common resources from being spoiled by individuals or groups.