Chris Blattman says maybe not. Excerpt:
The reasons that corruption should hurt growth are so persuasive that economists have been pretty surprised not to find much evidence. One team reviewed 41 different cross-country studies of corruption and development. Two-thirds of the studies don’t even find a negative correlation. Cross-country studies have mostly bad data and empirics, so we should not rest here. But Jacob Svensson has a nice overview of the broader evidence and draws the same conclusion: there’s not much to show that corruption reduces growth on net.
I worry more about corruption than those remarks would indicate, though I agree with Chris that the issue isn’t nearly as important as stopping a civil war.
First, I see a strong correlation between high levels of per capita income and low corruption. (I don’t worry about the lack of correlation with growth rates because, for one thing, poor countries, even many corrupt ones, may grow more rapidly for reasons related to the Solow model.) The causality here is hard to sort out, but there is plenty of micro evidence that corruption harms prosperity; it’s not just an aesthetic taste of wealthy people to limit corruption, the way they might buy nice interior drapes.
Furthermore, the correct corruption/poverty model may have multiple equilibria, depending on expectations. In that setting, making your country “look clean” may improve outcomes by shifting the economy up to better equilibria, even if lower corruption isn’t a direct cause of greater prosperity. There is worse advice than “Act like a rich country, and in the meantime you may become one,” at least provided you do not take this as liberty to spend above your means or to slack off with the work hours.
Second, even high levels of wealth will in some regards bring more corruption, especially as a country moves out of “fourth world” status or other forms of extreme poverty. Corruption very often rises with complexity and so along some margins it is correlated with wealth levels too. Similarly, we find that economic growth tends to bring more sexual harassment in the workplace, if only because more women are working outside the home. Yet it is still correct to think of the harassment as a very real negative, as is corruption.
In any case, this week’s new videos are up at MRU and they cover the topic of corruption, go over and take a look. Here is one video on the causal question about corruption and growth. Here is our video on the causes and predictors of corruption, historically speaking. Here is our video on how corruption can trap economies.