Cronyism: Necessary for the Minimal, Protective State.

Author:Coyne, Christopher J.
Position:Essay
 
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The provocative lead essay by Michael Munger and Mario Villarreal-Diaz, "The Road to Crony Capitalism," in this symposium forces readers to wrestle with the oft-neglected but crucial distinction between "ideal" capitalism, which is immune from cronyism by definition, and "real" capitalism, which is not. Our paper is motivated by their claim that "it is at least possible that cronyism is intrinsic to and not separable from capitalism" (emphasis in the original). We make a stronger claim and argue that to the extent that capitalism requires the existence of a state, even a minimal state, it also requires some degree of cronyism. Cronyism is inherent in state activities, so where the state exists, so too does cronyism. The question is not whether cronyism exists or whether there is a tendency for cronyism to emerge but instead the magnitude of cronyism given that the existence of the state is its very cause.

In discussions of a minimal state, the analogy of a referee is often employed (see, for instance, Buchanan 1975, 95-97). The idea is that the referee stands outside of the game and serves purely as an enforcer of predetermined rules. As an enforcer of the rules, a referee is not an active player in the game and does not intervene to shape outcomes. Those who embrace this analogy typically conclude that if the state remains purely protective, like the hypothetical referee, cronyism will be a nonissue. Players in the game will have no incentive to curry government favor because the referee cannot influence outcomes.

There are two reasons, however, why real government can never be limited to a role of referee that stands entirely outside of the game it is tasked with overseeing. First, even the minimal protective state requires resources in order to operate. This requirement means that the government must intervene in private economic life to extract resources. In doing so, it shapes and manipulates economic life and creates an environment conducive to cronyism by relying on political power to determine resource transfers and allocations. Second, the minimal protective state must also have discretion to deal with circumstances that are unforeseen at the time it is granted its initial powers. As Friedrich Hayek noted, a government planning authority "cannot tie itself down in advance to general and formal rules which prevent arbitrariness." The reason why is that planners require the power to address "circumstances which cannot be foreseen in detail" ([1944] 1994, 82, 83). This applies not just to comprehensive economic planning but also to noncomprehensive planning wherein government exerts authority over specific industries or sectors of the economy (see Lavoie [1985] 2016; Coyne and Hall forthcoming).

By modeling the state as an exogenous referee that remains entirely outside of the capitalist system, advocates of a minimal state understate or entirely neglect these realities. Despite their use of the term minimal to describe the core functions of the protective state, in reality the state contains significant space for cronyism. Advocates of the minimal state tend to be vehemently against corporatist cronyism and view it as destructive to the dynamic aspects of capitalism. At the same time, however, many of these advocates argue that the state must provide national security because it is a public good that will be undersupplied by private parties. Rarely do they appreciate the tension between these two claims. The state provision of defense fosters cronyism just like any other state activity. In fact, we should expect the problem of cronyism to be especially severe in matters of national security given the state's monopoly control over all aspects of military activities, which are vast in both scale and scope.

In the next section, we discuss the U.S. military sector as one illustration of how cronyism can infect protective-state functions. This is an insightful example because the U.S. military sector influences nearly all aspects of the U.S. economy and represents peak cronyism. Indeed, one would have a difficult time identifying a sector in the United States that better illuminates the operations of cronyism and its deleterious effects. This case study is also useful because it illustrates that even ?government were limited solely to providing core protective functions, cronyism would still be rampant. The concluding section considers some potential modes of response regarding the necessity of cronyism for capitalism.

Peak Cronyism: The U.S. Military Sector

The Foundations of Cronyism

The current U.S. military sector is a product of the two world wars. Prior to the U.S. entry into these wars, state-led military production would ebb and flow sporadically based on conflicts that emerged. During the world wars, this pattern changed. The state's massive war effort required the participation--whether voluntarily or through the threat of force--of the private sector. This requirement dramatically increased government intervention into the U.S. economy and created the foundations of the crony system that persists to this day.

Regarding World War I, Robert Higgs notes that "[w]hile many viewed the mobilization of the economy as having established both the possibility and desirability of extended government control of economic life, hardly anyone came away from the crisis with an enhanced understanding or appreciation of the market system or greater insight into the inherent cost-imposing, cost-concealing character of the command economy" (1987, 156). Similarly, Higgs states, World War II "moved the prevailing ideology [of the U.S. citizenry] markedly toward acceptance of an enlarged government presence in the economy" (236). As these statements suggest, it was not just the establishment of a massive bureaucracy that fostered cronyism but also an ideological shift that normalized entanglements between the private and public sector as a regular part of life.

During World War II, changes to defense contracting created the foundations for peak cronyism (see Higgs 2012,214-18). Procurement laws were changed to allow for the widespread use of noncompete, cost-plus-fixed-fee contracts in place of sealed competitive bids. The purpose of this change was to incentivize businesses to enter the military sector, which led to a change in the relationship between government and private business (Higgs 2006, 36-40).

As R. Elberton Smith notes, there was a change "from an 'arm's length' relationship between two more or less equal parties in a business transaction [to] an undefined but intimate relationship" ([1959] 1991, 312). The result, Higgs states, was that "deals came to turn not on price, but on technical and scientific capabilities, size, experience, and established reputations as a military supplier--vaguer attributes that are easier to fudge for one's friends" (2012, 217-18). Further, "the newly established 'intimate relationship' opened up a whole new world for wheeling and dealing on both sides [government and private business] of the transaction" (217). This arrangement persisted in the post-World War II period with the creation of a "permanent war economy" to engage in constant preparation and production for future wars (see Duncan and Coyne 2013a, 2013b).

The permanent war economy, which continues to thrive today, is the epitome of crony capitalism. The U.S. government has a monopoly on final defense provision at the national level. In order to deliver defense, the U.S. government...

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