The Limits of the Rule of Law to Address Systemic Corruption

José Ignacio Hernández for the Corruption, Justice, and Literacy Program website

Venezuela is considered one of the world’s most corrupt countries. A common strategy to address its corruption, and one advocated by the likes of the Council on Foreign Relations no less, is “reinstating the rule of law.” Similarly, the International Commission of Jurists has proposed to “recover the country’s democratic institutions and the functioning of the rule of law.”

Without a doubt, the rule of law should be restored in Venezuela to tackle corruption. The real question to ask, however, is this: What is the root cause of corruption in the country? If the cause is flawed rules, then, yes, the solution should be institutional reform that creates new rules and institutions. This in fact is the path Maduro’s regime has followed, while also recommending a legislative overhaul to boost anti-corruption policies.

Plenty of evidence exists, however, to conclude that flawed rules are not the primary driver of systemic corruption.

And, furthermore, the problem with any strategy focused on institutional reform to reinstate the rule of law to promote anti-corruption policy lies in the assumption that the branches of the Venezuelan Government possess the capability to enforce the policy.

Instead, the root cause of the country’s corruption problem resides not in its laws but in the fragility of the Venezuelan state. The first condition to reinstate the rule of law is that the state should have the capability to enforce the rule of law. And that condition is missing in Venezuela.

That is why, according to Matt Andrews, in the absence of a capable state, institutional reforms will have minimal impact; state fragility will prevent effective enforcement of the new institutions. In Venezuela, even the best comptroller under the proper framework would all but certainly fail to implement successful anti-corruption policies.

Rather than push for institutional reform to reinstate the rule of law in Venezuela, we should diagnose and measure the fragility of the state. As in Lampedusa's novel The Leopard, any anti-corruption strategy based only on an institutional reform will "change everything" to allow everything to stay “as it is.”

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