Public Goods Provision In Latin America

Even a model libertarian state requires the existence of the ultimate “big government” program—a bunch of dudes with guns authorized to threaten to shoot people who don’t agree to be handcuffed and imprisoned. And this program needs to work well. Which is difficult to do if you have a force of poorly paid and poorly trained cops dependent on corruption to make a living. As Mark Kleiman explains, you can easily get stuck in a bad equilibrium:

Also not news, but something I hadn’t reflected on: the “neoliberal”/IMF/Washington Consensus emphasis on reducing taxes and public spending made the problem – already bad enough – worse, and almost impossible to fix. One reason the Colombian security/rule of law situation has gotten better (which is not to say good) is a special tax levy on high incomes dedicated for the use of the security services. The back story on that tax, according to Zedillo, is that Bill Clinton went to Bogota in 1999, met with a bunch of rich folks, and told them that if they wanted security they’d have to pay for it. Apparently they agreed, and basically volunteered the tax increase.

But when Zedillo at about the same time (when he was President of Mexico) talked to Mexican “civil society” groups that were complaining about lawlessness, and told them “The taxes you don’t pay are the security you don’t have,” he got nowhere. “Right away, I lost eye contact,” he said. Prosperous Mexicans would rather hire private “security firms” to protect their children from kidnapping, without too much concern about that fact that some of those firms maintain demand for the service by kidnapping the children of non-clients.

This is in part a “policy problem.” But I think it’s also pretty clearly to an extent a problem of public ethics and public morals. In societies with a decent level of public spiritedness, social solidarity, and moral responsibility, elites concerned about public safety respond by trying to improve pubic safety. For the past 15 years or so, Colombian elites have, among other things, sincerely wanted their country to work better and it’s paid off.