08 March 2005

Why is the EU so corrupt?

For the benefit of those surprised by the software patent scandal, it is worth asking, why is this style of behaviour so characteristic of the EU institutions? A caricature of a Eurosceptic might say that it is to be expected of "foreigners", but in fact the EU is more corrupt than any of its member countries.

Like asking why some countries are poor, this is in a sense a reversal of the real question. It is normal for people to be poor, and it is normal for governments to be corrupt, and it is the exceptions that need explanations, not the normal case. Nonetheless, there is still a discrepancy to be explained, as the EU is unusually corrupt when compared to governemnts in the developed world.

I see two major reasons. First, necessity puts a lower limit on national governments' corruption and incompentence. Even in the modern era of bloated state sectors, there is a lot which a national government does which is considered essential to the lives of its citizens. If the Italian government could not keep order in the cities, if it could not keep the state-run transport system and basic nationalised services running, it would collapse. It would be overthrown as its failure became obvious to everyone.

In contrast, absolutely nothing that the EU does is essential. Every member government is capable of running its own country, and some have done so for centuries. There is no minimum level of competence or effectiveness below which the EU cannot fall, no degree of corruption which is unsupportable.

Secondly, the EU has a huge weight of idealism supporting it. While other state enterprises are judged on their achievements and their merits, the EU project can count on a large body of support on the basis of its ideals, independently of its actual structure or behaviour. It can upset one group or another with indivdual acts of defiance of law and democracy, but there are always more people who assume, in ignorance, that it is a force for good. When it comes to a vote, the diffuse good feeling outweighs the outrage of those that have experienced the Eurocrats directly.

The weakness of these two arguments is that they apply equally to the USA. It also is a federal layer over states capable of running their own affairs, and it also commands a unionist idealism. While by no means free of corruption, it is not so mired as the EU.

It is important to recognise that the USA is unique in this. There have been a number of other superstates, but none of them have been democratically controlled except for the USA. They have all been effectively ruled, as the EU is, by nominal civil servants with control of the bureaucracy. Though an opponent of Communism, I think the problems of the USSR were as much the result of federalism as they were of Marxism.

So why has the USA succeeded? I think its exceptional status comes from a number of different elements, but here are a few:
  • It was founded on a principle of strictly limited government. The founders had a clearer idea of what they were against than of what they were for.
  • In particular, federal powers are much more sharply circumscribed by the Bill of Rights than by any vague doctrine of "subsidiarity" in the EU lexicon.
  • Its population does not consist of distinct nations (ignoring Native Americans, which they did). Citizens see the federal institutions as being part of their own country.
  • Americans have a more "legalistic" attitude than Europeans, who have a more "pragmatic" attitude to law. This pragmatism tends to dissolve separations of powers.

Related links:
Software Patent article
Why did the EU ever seem a good idea?
FFII
UKIP
Larry Siedentop - the argument about legalistic / pragmatic law is from him. I highly recommend his book as an insightful and non-partisan study of its subject.

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