Corruption

Limited government – Ideal State

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In this weekly column on The Sunday Morning Business titled “The Coordination Problem”, the scholars and fellows associated with Advocata attempt to explore issues around economics, public policy, the institutions that govern them and their impact on our lives and society.

Originally appeared on The Morning


Limited Government; Ideal State – Part IV

By Dhananath Fernando

This article completes Advocata’s four-piece series on “limited government”. Over the past three weeks, we have presented three arguments in favour of a limited government. We began the series by delving into the mounting costs associated with a government of this size. The article questioned the rationale behind expenditure on this scale, given that the services provided by the Government are characteristically inefficient. Erratic power cuts and railway strikes seen in the recent past are testament to this. From here, the series explored the question of how a government can best serve its citizens.

The main argument presented was that when the powers and responsibilities of the State are decentralised, voters are given a stronger voice and are better able to hold elected officials accountable. The result is that public finances are better managed and service delivery improves. The last topic tackled in this series was that of corruption, expanding on how the window of opportunity for corruption widens when a government grows in scope as well as physical size, without the necessary governance and accountability measures in place. All three articles concluded on the same point – the size and role of the Government needs to be re-visited.

At a fundamental level, a government exists to protect the life, liberty, and property of its citizens. This is the first and foremost responsibility of a government and it is vital that this is given priority. The danger of governments expanding into other sectors is that these foundational responsibilities are pushed to the sidelines. When a government provides subsidies, creates price ceilings, and gives ad hoc handouts, it loses incentive to focus on its priorities. Giving a subsidy has an immediate impact on its voters and a cycle of instant gratification begins. Parallel to election cycles, governments now have an easier, quicker method to win over voters. Ensuring the rule of law and enshrining the negative freedoms of a population does not have the shiny appeal of a handout – the positive, virtuous cycles these freedoms and protections create are strong, they can permeate institutions and change cultures of work. However, they can take years to come into effect and are difficult concepts to convey through the flashy advertisements of an election campaign.

Of course, this means that governments respond to the attractive incentive of a quick win and an extended term in office, and prioritises the handout over the fundamentals of freedom. As much as these freedoms can create virtuous cycles of growth and development, the neglect and deterioration of these freedoms can create dangerous cycles of corruption, misuse, and violence.

The best way to illustrate these dangerous cycles is through the justice system. Unfortunately, we witnessed first-hand the aftermath of the Easter attacks where virulent rhetoric against the Muslim community resulted in riots, with 500 Muslim-owned shops being attacked and set on fire. In the face of this outbreak of violence, the rule of law was flagrantly abused, and peace was not upheld.

Eammon Butler, in his book “Foundations of a Free Society”, expounds on this in some detail. According to him, the rules of justice are a cornerstone of any free society. While rules of justice would mean there are penalties for harming other people, in a free society, emphasis is also given to ensuring the role and power of a government is strictly limited. This will mean that the monopoly over violence a government has will not be used arbitrarily or in the self-interest of those who wield it. To quote: “The main problem of political organisation is not how to choose our leaders – that is easy – but how to restrain them.”

This seems reasonable and rational. No one wants an army-running rampant – you want to ensure the people with the guns and ammunition have clear rules on when and why they can use it. Most governments recognise this and have mechanisms such as constitutions and the separation of the executive, legislature, and judiciary to restrain those in positions of power. But the foundation of this is to ensure that citizens are all treated equally under the law – that all laws apply equally to all citizens and there is equal treatment and due process of justice. For freedom to have meaning, it has to apply equally to the whole population. When this does not take place and there is essentially a break down in the rule of law, the immediate impacts might seem inconsequential. It might mean that someone gets out on bail when maybe they shouldn’t. It might mean that tariffs are raised to protect politically important local business interests. Taken alone, these are singular events, which, while problematic, don’t cause much consternation. However, this is a slippery slope which often ends in widespread corruption in the best case, and a complete breakdown of law and order in other instances.

Once again, recent events illustrate that all citizens are not treated equally under the law, and that instances where law and order break down are increasing in frequency. The Wennappuwa Pradeshiya Sabha (PS) Chairman issuing a letter prohibiting Muslim traders from conducting business at the Dankotuwa Market is a case in point. It is of utmost importance that steps are taken to ensure the rule of law is maintained, and the Government prioritises its core functions putting the safety and freedom of all its citizens at the forefront.

Less spending, less corruption

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In this weekly column on The Sunday Morning Business titled “The Coordination Problem”, the scholars and fellows associated with Advocata attempt to explore issues around economics, public policy, the institutions that govern them and their impact on our lives and society.

Originally appeared on The Morning


Why should we have a limited government? – Part III

By Aneetha Warusavitarana

The World Bank quite simply defines corruption as the “abuse of public office for private gain”. Accordingly, public office can be abused when private agents actively offer or accept bribes, institute practices of patronage and nepotism, and engage in the theft of state assets or misuse public funds. In Sri Lanka, corruption has become institutionalised and can range from the traffic policeman who accepts a bribe to a high-ranking bureaucrat siphoning public money for personal expenses.

In 2018, Sri Lanka ranked 89th out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index. As a country, we score 38 out of 100, with 100 representing a clean, corruption-free country. The magnitude of this problem is clear.

What’s the big deal about corruption?

Bribery

Is corruption really bad? You can’t deny that when your garbage is piling up, it’s easier to bribe the garbage collectors to take your garbage than visit your municipal council and file a complaint. Sometimes, it can just be easier to pay a bribe to the traffic police than go to court and settle a traffic violation, or to pay a little extra and get your driving license renewed faster. These are all very mundane, commonplace occurrences that have become normalised to the point one does not think of it as “corruption”. It’s just a small payment to make your life a little easier – a small payment to ensure an application is processed smoothly. So, if corruption can make things simpler, what’s the issue?

While corruption on this scale can appear to be insignificant, in reality, it is one component of a much larger, systemic problem which has far-reaching consequences. Corruption in government is institutional, and given the outsized role the Sri Lankan Government plays in markets and business, the impact is far-reaching. The difficulty in holding government officials accountable and the considerable discretion they can wield creates an environment in which corruption can flourish.

The far-reaching impacts of corruption

Large corruption scandals often focus on the amount of money that has been misused, placing emphasis on face value loss that is created by corruption. However, the impact of one act of bribery or corruption goes far beyond the initial monetary loss. Corruption raises the transaction costs of conducting business and creates uncertainty in the market. In an environment where corruption flourishes, a business will not win a contract based on merit and skill alone. Procurement-related issues (read: corruption) associated with the Kerawalapitiya Power Plant meant that it took three years to award the tender. This lowers profitability within firms and creates an overall environment of uncertainty which discourages foreign investment. The result is that the positive spillover effects from investments, like increased competition and technology transfers, will not take place. Corruption also reduces the attractiveness of entrepreneurship, resulting in higher prices and lower quality. The problem does not end there. The culture of corruption is one of impunity and complete disregard for the rule of law. When this culture permeates the government, it affects the independence and credibility of the legislature and the judiciary – the very institutions which should be ensuring that the rule of law is upheld.

State-Owned Enterprises and corruption

Sri Lanka’s state-owned enterprises are a prime example of institutionalised corruption. In Advocata’s flagship report, the State of State Enterprises in Sri Lanka – 2019, the problem of corruption is a key issue tackled. In this report, corruption is explained through the perverse incentives that exist in the Sri Lankan bureaucracy. In the case of state-owned enterprises, as the money invested in state-owned enterprises is not of the politicians, there are no incentives for politicians to work towards making these enterprises efficient or productive. However, given the deep-rooted culture of patronage that exists in Sri Lanka, there is a strong incentive for politicians to use state-owned enterprises for their own gain. The lack of oversight or accountability means politicians can hire almost indiscriminately, giving out jobs for political gain. The reports from the Committee on Public Enterprise (COPE) make this abundantly clear, highlighting the numerous instances where recruitment had taken place without the appropriate approval from the Department of Management Services.

This problem is exacerbated by weak systems of accountability and governance. While the COPE and the Committee on Public Accounts (COPA) do play a role in the governance of state-owned enterprises, they have access to limited resources and equipment and are in need of specialised skills such as legal aid.

What is the solution?

If corruption is the abuse of public office for private gain, then in order to stop corruption, we should focus our attention on how and where this abuse happens. When the government moves outside its core mandate to protect life, liberty, and property, it grows in size and in scope, making the government difficult to monitor and hold accountable. Additionally, as a government grows in size, so does its spending. Changing a culture of corruption will take a great deal of political will and leadership, as well as buy-in from the bureaucracy. While accountability and transparency play an important role in countering corruption, the effects of this are seen in the long term. In the short term, focus should be on limiting the scope of the government and thereby drastically reducing government spending. A 10% cut of Rs. 3 million is significantly lower than a 10% cut of Rs. 300 million; reducing government spending is the fastest way to reduce corruption in quantitative terms. A reduction in government spending will also make transparency within the government easier to enforce, helping create a culture of accountability.

If we are to seriously tackle the problem of corruption in government, the role and scope of the government needs to be revisited and limited.