I am lecturing this week in Liberia on the importance of economic institutions that foster growth. I’ll talk about property rights, free trade, monetary stability, etc. However, there is a significant issue that Liberia (and most developing nations) need to overcome before these institutions can be effective: corruption.
In Liberia, there seems to be no stigma attached to bribe solicitation, even of the most heinous variety. For example, customs agents at Roberts International Airport showed no shame whatsoever in extorting bribes from us upon our arrival into Liberia last year. I explained to the agent that our (legal) cache of baby formula and Pepto-Bismol was for orphaned children, and that it had the potential to save the lives of children. I did this in a loud voice, in broad daylight, with many onlookers. The (male and female) agents were absolutely unfazed by any potential embarrassment. This was truly shocking to me.
Without any moral stigma attached to corruption, it will be nearly impossible to achieve any real economic growth. In addition, the incentives for creative and intelligent individuals are to vie for government employment. The ones that are particularly good will move up from $20 airport bribes to lobbying for international aid.