11 August 2010

Taming Corruption in Hong Kong and Colorado

Can a culture of corruption be tamed? Paul Romer makes that case that Hong Kong successfully did just that in the 1970s.

As in many places, the responsibility for fighting official corruption in Hong Kong once rested with a special branch within the police force that was conveniently ineffective. In 1974, the governor general of Hong Kong vested anti-corruption responsibilities in a new elite ministry, the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC). The commission was directly responsible to the governor general, who was himself an appointed rather than an elected official.

The governor general in Hong Kong was not an authoritarian leader. He answered to the democratically elected British prime minister but his position did not depend on local political contests. As a result, neither the governor general nor the commissioners that answered to him had any interest in using the substantial powers of the commission for narrow political gain. They could be trusted with strong powers because they were held accountable to an offshore democracy that wanted Hong Kong to thrive.

Unsurprisingly, the ICAC’s efforts met with considerable resistance from the police. The governor general was eventually forced to grant amnesty for past crimes after the police went on strike and threatened violence. Though amnesty was viewed as a setback at the time, it meant that the commission could use all of its resources to prosecute fresh cases involving corrupt police officers and officials. This made it a much better deterrent against continued corruption.

Along with the formal prosecutions, the ICAC used education to change Hong Kong’s social norms regarding corruption. It organized a broad campaign, adding anti-corruption classes to the public school curriculum and creating anti-corruption television programs. It published surveys that tracked changes in the amount of corruption over time. The commission also reviewed the rules of all ministries and modified them to reduce opportunities for corruption (Manion 2004).

So much for Hong Kong’s intractable culture of corruption. According to the surveys, the frequency of requests for bribes fell very quickly. Today Hong Kong is among the least corrupt places in the world, ahead of Japan, the UK, and the US.

Colorado, thankfully, is a state that is less corrupt than many. As a young lawyer in Grand Junction, the partners I worked for explained one of the reasons that this was so over lunch at the country club. Colorado's judges are not only appointed, they are appointed at the state level by the governor. As a result, they owe the local political machine nothing. And, it turns out, this has a great deal of practical importance, because an important part of what judges do is adjudicate disputes with local government. Locally elected or appointed judges who have far more entanglements in local government. A governor of the state may have an agenda that influences which of three candidates proposed by a panel gets a final job, but that agenda involves a sense of what is in the best interests of the state as a whole, not local special interests.

The fact that judges are nominated on a merit system, rather than through pure political appointment or by running campaigns for office, also helps to make the corps of judges, chosen overwhelmingly from the ranks of experienced lawyers, an elite one. Since it takes only a little more effort than the interview process for any other professional job to become a judge in Colorado, and candidates do not face the intense personal spotlight of the legislative confirmation process, qualified individuals who might not otherwise attempt to become judges do so in Colorado.

This isn't the only institution that helps to prevent Colorado from becoming corrupt, but it is an important one.

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