Good Culture? On Vote Buying and Reciprocity  

In our last post, we discussed a famous cultural hypothesis about the Philippines which suggested that its bad culture was at the root of its poverty. As we pointed out, the particular cultural hypothesis that James Fallows proposed was a bit vague, however.

Culture is complex and no doubt made up of many different practices and beliefs. For instance, cultural anthropologists would see reciprocity as being a fundamental human cultural process and essential to a well-functioning society. Reciprocity means that if somebody gives something to you or does something for you, you tend to do likewise — i.e., reciprocate.

Social scientists have devised games for testing how reciprocal are and you might well argue that being reciprocal is critical for building cooperation, trust and a well-functioning society. Could it be that the Filipinos are just insufficiently reciprocal?

But as the paper by Fred Finan and Laura Schechter shows, reciprocity can be a double-edged sword in the presence of weak institutions. As we’ll see coming up, politics in the Philippines is endemically clientelistic. There are many ways of engaging in clientelism but a simple one is vote buying. A politician gives you money and you vote for him.

Finan and Schechter start with the puzzle of how clientelistic practices can persist if there is a secret ballot. The politician comes to buy your vote, but how is he going to be sure that you kept your end of the bargain after getting the money and voted for him?

Finan and Schechter argue that one potential way that this problem can be solved for clientelistic politicians is if they are able to identify people in the community who are intrinsically “reciprocal”. Such people are just culturally disposed to reciprocate when someone does something for them. If there is an effective secret ballot, they may be able to cheat, but they just won’t. Then using data they collected in Paraguay from surveys and games to identify how reciprocal people are, Finan and Schechter show that it is people who are more reciprocal who are likely to have their vote bought, and politicians use intermediaries and community leaders to identify such people.

What looks like “good culture” in the abstract turns out to support clientelism, a political strategy associated with the mass under-provision of public goods.

Hmm, so maybe Filipinos are too reciprocal?

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