April 22, 2009

Corruption? What corruption?

Quico says: How can it be that the government only prosecutes corruption cases when the accused are Chávez opponents? It drives me batty. Nothing chavismo does makes my blood boil like the partisan use of anti-corruption legislation. Considering ours is a government virtually specialized in coming up with innovative ways of making my blood boil, that's quite a claim.

Thing is, for political scientists, the determinants of corruption aren't much of a mystery. The profession is pretty unified on the idea that people in the public sector respond to the incentives they face, pretty much like people in the private sector do. They weigh the expected benefits and expected costs of actions and, if the former outweigh the latter, they go for it.

In the case of corruption, in particular, the calculus isn't especially hard to make. It goes something like:

There are, of course, variations on this theme. But the basic view of bureaucrats as calculating agents responding to incentives basically holds. Give officials more discretion over regulatory decisions worth important sums of money and, ceteris paribus, you'll get more corruption. Alternatively, cut back on official oversight, or make it more difficult for regular citizens to see what's actually going on in an administrative setting, and you can certainly expect more corruption.

It's when you've grasped this that the Chavez regime's deliriously partisan application of anti-corruption laws comes into sharpest relief.

We all know that, in Venezuela today, the vast majority of public sector jobs are in the hands of chavistas while the vast majority of anti-corruption probes target the tiny spaces regime opponents have carved out through state and local elections. But even that realization doesn't come close to giving a full picture of the regime's manipulation of anti-corruption statutes.

Go back to that equation. It's not just that chavistas hold more offices than anti-chavistas, it's that, from a racketeering point of view, they hold all the good offices. Controlling the entire national bureaucracy, they hold all the key posts with discretional power over regulatory decisions that make or break businesses. Controlling the vast bulk of the state's oil revenues, they rule over disproportionate amounts of the money the state has to play with.

By comparison, the rump opposition is utterly dependent on central government transfers, transfers they do or don't get depending on the central government's - wait for it - discretion.

But it's not only that. It's that the rump opposition-run public sector faces far, far greater scrutiny than the chavista controlled bits of the state, with the comptroller's office devoted nearly exclusively to picking over the minutiae of their transactions. And the Chávez-controlled public sector is not just an oversight-free zone, but a transparency-free zone as well, with public accounts barely audited and key financial reports simply not filed for months and months after their deadlines are reached.

The government's claim, in effect, is that the opposition is more corrupt than the government, even though it has more to lose from corruption, and less to gain from it. Opposition supporters, for whom trouble in the event of even minor indiscretions is nearly guaranteed, nevertheless choose to steal, while government supporters, who are nearly guaranteed to get away with it no matter how brazen their graft, choose not to.

How can that be?

The only way to sustain a belief in this storyline is to posit that chavistas and anti-chavistas are fundamentally different kinds of human beings.

They're not both rational decision-makers responding to the balance of expected costs and benefits they face, they're fundamentally different forms of humanity. Chavistas are, deep down, good people, who won't steal even when they can get away with it. Whereas we are so immanently, deeply, incorrigibly crooked we'll steal even in the full knowledge of what's coming.

For chavismo, it's not even that we're stupid. It's that we're evil. And here we get to the essentialist nub of the Chávez era, a style of engaging opponents that refuses recognize in them even the rudiments of rationality, seeing our behavior as ruled by a deep well of sheer horribleness that no rational calculus could deter or curb.

It's this essentialist nub of chavismo's engagement with the world that's really alarming. Because so long as I believe that my opponents are merely cynical, or wrong, or stupid I can imagine coming to some sort of accommodation with them. But from the moment I convince myself - and my followers - that my enemies are fundamentally evil, it's only a minuscule step to advocating their physical elimination.

Es dramática la vaina...