Public choice theory and Haiti

Why is Haiti such a mess? How might a public choice economist think about the Haitian system of government?

Before Papa Doc Duvalier, Haitian leaders were lucky to last a few years. Look at this list of constitutions. Hegel suggested that voodoo religion would not lead to political liberty; so far Haiti has not disproved this thesis. Here is a comprehensive page on Haitian history, replete with useful links.

Haitian government appears to have no “core,” to use the economist’s term for instability. Most of the population is illiterate but extremely smart and distrusting of their governments. The distrust is so strong as to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. No leader can command lasting popular support or form a stable political coalition. One alternative is to rule with complete tyranny; alternatively, you can be more moderate and govern with a shorter-term perspective. In other words, you loot the country, while telling yourself, correctly, that the people who will follow your reign will be even worse.

The Haitian voodoo gods are intransitive in their power relations, and so has been the Haitian government, at least in the absence of massive oppression or outside interference.

The Duvalier years represented a watershed in the ongoing 150-year collapse that we call Haitian politics. At first it seemed like an acceptable bargain for the elites. Accept a charismatic dictator in return for public order and protection of investments. But it turned out that Papa Doc was crazy and he waged an ongoing campaign to destroy Haitian intermediary institutions. Soon there were more Haitian nurses in Montreal than in Haiti. By the time the reign of his son Baby Doc ended in the mid-1980s, the country was in tatters.

According to one account, Haitian politics is run by about ten families, many of them of Lebanese descent. In this view no leader can challenge their commercial interests. The only question is how oppressive that leader must be to rule the country and constrain a potential coup d’etat. But I view this account as too simplistic. Haiti is not a story of “the poor get poorer, the rich get richer.” The rich get poorer too. Perhaps Haitian “social capital” is a wasting asset, and we are in an equilibrium where everyone is willing to erode it further, knowing that a downward spiral cannot be prevented. The collective result of this behavior is to hasten the corrosion of order.

Drug money has been the big story for the last fifteen to twenty years. The poverty, corruption, and coastline of Haiti make it easy prey for drug smugglers. And of course it is close to the United States. As the older wealthy families lose ground, drug money has become the dominant political force. It can be argued how directly Aristide has been linked to the drug trade. But ultimately a Haitian politician must at least acquiesce in massive drug smuggling. A leading Haitian politician with no links to the drug trade would be like a Saudi prince with no connection to oil money — in other words, don’t believe it.

The other key player, of course, is the United States government. Aristide returned because Clinton reinstalled him. Aristide left when Bush told him to get lost. The U.S. can use force, withhold foreign aid, or use proclamations to make a leader focal or not. You might recall that Aristide did not allow legitimate elections to occur, which led to a crippling freeze on foreign aid. Aristide also proved no friend of democracy. In his “defense,” probably no Haitian incumbent could have survived fair elections, which brings us back to either tyranny or ever-circulating regime, short-time horizons, and political looting. Aristide chose a mix of these options.

So let’s say I was the president of Haiti. I have to keep the leading families happy or at least on board. I have to stop the drug smugglers from killing me or mobilizing opposition. I have to acquiesce in the drug trade, recognizing that most of those around me are on the take. I have to deal with the warlords who rule the local neighborhoods. I have to keep the U.S. President happy or at least neutralize him. I have to keep the population from starving. I have no resources and no tax base. Most of my public servants live from corruption. My country has virtually no foreign investment or infrastructure. I don’t even rule or physically control most of the country. In case of a revolt, I have only a few thousand policeman to draw upon.

Get the picture?

The bottom line: Don’t expect things to get better.