Luis Pedro's Turn of Phrase

It’s not easy to think up ways to infuse life into the tired old political economy discussion we’ve been having since the 1930s, but Luis Pedro España manages it,

Que el Estado pueda asignar recursos sin tener que distribuirlos es una particularidad que permite que nuestro clientelismo sea particularmente perverso. Para decirlo de una vez y sin tapujos, el clientelismo petrolero, ese en el cual una parte de su gasto no tiene por contraparte un pagador doméstico de tributos, puede beneficiar a unos sin necesariamente generar prejuicio en otros. En otras palabras puede otorgar subsidios o transferencias, otorgar bienes y servicios, sin que exista alguien interno que se queje porque está pagando una cuenta dispendiosa. En Venezuela sí hay almuerzo gratis, o mejor, quien lo paga es un externo que no cuenta para la política interna.

That’s lovely and well put, as is the rest of his column.

Now, political scientists will tell you that the statistical link in comparative perspective between resource abundance and democracy is problematic, and arguably quite weak. A zillion and a half studies have looked into it and the picture that emerges isn’t that clear.

But my Venezuela-driven intuition is that “democracy” is the wrong variable to look at. What undermines petrostates and other resource-cursed countries isn’t the absence of democracy but rather run-away pro-incumbent bias. In the normal run of affairs, petrostate elites just have way too many distributional levers to pull to keep themselves in power that voting stops functioning as a realistic route for contestation.

Less developed petrostates sometimes turn to institutional constraints to maintain some space for contestation. But those institutional constraints – like the 1961 constitution’s rule against immediate re-election – are inherently unstable: always just one charismatic populist away from getting chucked out the window. The competitive dynamics that democracy itself creates builds in massive incentives to fiddle with those norms – either around the edge, like Lusinchi, or by just driving a Mack truck through them like el que te conté. 

Where I differ from Juan is that I really don’t think this is about Chávez. It’s about the political economy of oil. Petroclientelism poses a grave challenge to democratic contestability as traditionally understood. It may be that petrostate regimes are really only challengeable in power in exceptional circumstances, when a hiccup in the world-oil market plunges the petroclientelist machine into crisis, à la 1998.

How you create institutions strong enough and stable enough to prevent petrostate elites from performing their usual conjuring trick – turning petroleum into power – is the great unanswered question of our generation…and the one before it…and the one before that one, too…