Elite Power and State Strength: A Timely Focus of Academic Studies

By Eric Hershberg

lapidim / Flickr / Creative Commons

lapidim / Flickr / Creative Commons

Insufficient state revenues are one fundamental reason that many Latin American governments fail to provide their citizens with adequate education, health care, public transportation, environmental protection and the physical and technological infrastructure needed to move their countries toward high-income country status.  As a whole, the region’s governments were able to spend only 14.8 and 15.25 percent of GDP in 2013 and 2014, according to the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC).  Rationalization of expenditures is a goal that can only be pursued in practice if there are adequate funds to begin with, and few Latin American states have that luxury.  (To be sure, even where states are well financed, as in Brazil and Argentina, governments typically fail to spend resources efficiently.)  Historically primitive and regressive tax systems have not evolved in a manner consistent with the development needs of the region.  During the second decade of the 21st century this remains a major obstacle for those who strive to build more effective and democratic states across Latin America.

Several ambitious new books in comparative political economy offer insightful and complementary analyses of the political conditions that perpetuate state weakness as well as the dynamics that offer hope of overcoming it.

  • Aaron Schneider’s 2012 Cambridge University Press volume on State-Building and Tax Regimes in Central America was an initial contribution to this emerging literature, linking that sub-region’s changing relationship to the world economy to aggressive efforts by different factions of the elite to fashion tax systems that reflect their narrow interests rather than a broader agenda of societal development.
  • A book that will be launched later this month in Guatemala City builds on this work by underscoring the importance of political contestation regarding the fiscal arena more broadly – encompassing state expenditure as well as revenue. That study, prepared under the auspices of CLALS and the Instituto Centroamericano de Estudios Fiscales (ICEFI), illustrates the ways in which Central American elites have exercised disproportionate influence to render states ineffective and regressive: they contribute little to state coffers and extract much from them, with consequences that diminish the life chances of a majority of that region’s population.
  • Tasha Fairfield’s conceptually ambitious and empirically rich comparative study of South American cases, to be published later this year by Cambridge University Press, is a landmark contribution to literature on elites and Latin American political economy. It consists of a thorough comparative analysis of Argentina, Bolivia and Chile, revealing that strong business associations tied closely to the state augment elite capacity to block progressive tax reforms.  Conversely, she finds that social movement influence over the state can undermine elite capacity to resist the sorts of taxation needed to redistribute wealth.
  • Evelyne Huber and John Stephens demonstrated previously, in their 2012 University of Chicago Press book on democracy and the left, that there is a clear link between the capabilities of the political left in democratic regimes and the prospects for more equitable social policies in Latin America. Such policies, as this recent wave of publications make clear, will only come about if societies develop systems of taxation compatible with the emergence of effective states.

Scholarship on Latin American economic development has until recently devoted little attention to political power imbalances as drivers of state weakness and the consequent failure of societies across the region to forge pathways toward developed-country levels of income and opportunity.  These studies highlight the centrality of elite collective organization and behavior, as well as the political strength of countervailing forces in society, for determining levels of taxation across the region.  Taken as a whole, this welcome wave of social science research restores Latin American political economy to its rightful place as a domain of scholarship that speaks to the concrete challenges facing the region today and in the future.  Policymakers throughout the hemisphere who speak of democracy and economic growth need the clear analysis to progress that scholarly works such as these provide.

February 5, 2015

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1 Comment

  1. Alec Dawson

     /  February 5, 2015

    Eric, thanks for this interesting post. I keep mumbling and stumbling through the concept of state weakness, though. The concept produces a sense that it is weakness that prevents these states from fulfilling the promises of the liberal democratic state. And yet the very logic of the state in much of Latin America is rooted in the maintenance of elite privilege through practices that actively marginalize and seek to control poor majorities in these societies. I think we need a better work than weakness to describe the Latin American state. It is as problematic as the concept of “corrupt” which itself assumes the existence of the non-corrupt in order to have any critical meaning.

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