Good institutions – and the lack of them

I’ve read two very different books lately about societies in which the powerful plunder, while the legal systems offers few reliable protections against such abuse.

The British novelist Rana Dasgupta now lives in Delhi and has written Capital.  The title of this series of vignettes is a play on words –  Delhi is both the political capital of modern India, and it is a city in which moneymaking and trading on the power of political and bureaucratic connections is rampant.   India isn’t a country I know that much about, and the book was both fascinating and disconcerting. India has had democratically elected governments since Independence – in contrast, say, to  Burma, Bangladesh, and Pakistan – but it is scarcely a credit to democracy.

Written in a very different style, US academic Karen Dawisha’s Putin’s Kleptocracy is a relentless detailed account of the way Vladimir Putin has played the Russian system, to enrich himself and his cronies, as part of the complex mesh of, sometimes extremely brutal ways, he has established pretty pervasive control.  At best, Russian can now be described as an authoritarian quasi-democracy. Dawisha’s UK publisher refused to publish the book, apparently in fear of the weight of the onerous UK libel laws falling on them, but Simon and Schuster in the US have published it.

Both books are recommended, but they are very different.  Dasgupta is an easy read –  a sometimes dizzying series of pictures of people, his own Indian family included, that illustrates what modern Delhi has come to represent.  For 450 pages of text it has 4 pages of footnotes.  Dawisha, by contrast, has 350 pages of text and almost 70 pages of bibliography and notes –  the detail is what makes the case against Putin so strong.

Dasgupta himself draws some parallels:

“Earlier in this book we saw how fondly and often India was likened to America.  But for the most part, this was pure ideology. India has much more obvious similarities to America’s alter ego: Russia.  India and Russia had both had systems of state-run capitalism that had foundered by the 1980s, generating a new class of clever, underground entrepreneurs who came into their own after the old systems – almost simultaneously – collapsed.  Both countries developed systems, after that point, in which the existence of electoral democracy did not prevent the emergence of a class of oligarchs who used the political system to take control of their countries’ essential resources.  Both of them had capital cities, Moscow and Delhi, where the people watched with resentment as a small number of people used the immense power of large-country politics to their immense advantage.”

A year on from his book, with all the subsequent adventurism in Ukraine, this may be a little unfair to India.  But I was struck more by the contrast between these two countries, and the advanced Northern European tradition of which New Zealand is part.  No country has been totally free of corruption, and constant vigilance is required against, for example, sweetheart deals with those who cosy up to the powerful.  But it is difficult to see how India or Russia could reach even New Zealand’s (barely) First World living standards without far-reaching changes in the political and legal systems.  And, as always, entrenched interests, that don’t arise from nowhere, are a powerful obstacle.  And perhaps that is why, with few exceptions, the countries that were rich 100 years ago are still the rich countries today, as Ed Glaeser illustrated a few years ago.

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