Why is Corruption so Pervasive in Thailand? Could it be the Weather?


A recent article by Reason magazine’s award winning science correspondent, Ronald Baily, describes research that suggests that it could, in fact, be the weather.   He begins:

Greater wealth strongly correlates with property rights, the rule of law, education, the liberation of women, a free press, and social tolerance. The enduring puzzle for political scientists is how the social processes that produce freedom and wealth get started in the first place

Low levels of GDP do correlate with high levels of corruption, although there is a causality problem when arguing that corruption causes poverty or vice versa. But the two are obviously related.  The relationship between low levels of respect for the rule of law and high levels of corruption is almost self-evident; indeed one almost defines the other.  A free press, unencumbered by draconian defamation laws and other restrictions on speech, also challenges corruption. So why is a free press, social tolerance, the rule of law and transparency much stronger in some places than others?

Reason magazine’s article describes research suggesting that differences in the prevalence of disease explains, or at least help explains, this difference.  The article goes on to make a point about the relationship between disease and geography that is of particular relevance to Thailand:

It is well-known that disease prevalence falls the further one gets away from the equator. Hence it is not surprising, Thornhill and Fincher say, that the development of modern democratic institutions began in high-latitude Western Europe and North America.

The entire article should be read, but it is worth highlighting one observation that seems particularly germane to Thailand:

Their central idea is that ethnocentrism and out-group avoidance function as a kind of behavioral immune system. Just as individuals have immune systems that fight pathogens, groups of people evolve with local parasites and develop some resistance to them. People who are not members of one’s group may carry new diseases to which the group has not developed defenses. “Thus,” Thornhill and Fincher write, “xenophobia, as a defensive adaptation against parasites to which there is an absence of local adaptation, is expected to be most pronounced in regions of high parasite stress.”

Thailand’s geography cannot be changed.  Does that mean Thailand is cursed by geography to forever have a high level of corruption and suffer other serious social maladies? No.

Indeed, this theory of political development provides cause for optimism for Thailand.  The article observes:

In any event, as life expectancy across the globe has increased, liberal institutions have spread. The human rights group Freedom House reports that since 1972 the percentage of free countries has risen from 29 percent to 45 percent. During that same time, average global life expectancy has risen from 58 to 70 years.

Thailand has seen even more impressive improvements in life expectancy. The World Health Organization reports that in Bangkok, for example, females have an average life expectancy of 79.7 years while males have an average life expectancy of 75.6 years.  This would have been unimaginable several decades ago.  By other measures as well, Thailand has seen tremendous strides in eradicating or at least reducing debilitating tropical diseases.

Even if this biological theory of political development is true, the tremendous improvements in longevity and overall health Thailand has witnessed over the last several decades will not, in my view, guarantee a reduction in corruption.  It may help explain, in part, why Thailand has a serious corruption problem in the first place, but other changes are needed to eradicate this problem.  I would argue that its not just the change in “attitude” that politicians of all persuasions so often tout as the solution to this problem, but rather a fundamental change to protectionist policies and laws that grant unfettered discretion to officials to act as ‘gate keepers’ to protect Thailand from questionable threats.  There is also a relationship between (a) laws and policies intended to protect entrenched local interests; and (b) corruption. But that is fodder for another post.

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