29 September, 2020


Economic Policy Governance A Must If Good Governance To Succeed: Part II

By W A Wijewardena –

Dr. W.A Wijewardena

An alert reader of the previous part in this series has warned me that without knowing what the proposed 20th Amendment would contain we should not jump to conclusions about fate of the 19th Amendment. According to him, there are some good parts of that amendment like the independent commissions and the strengthened Constitutional Council or CC that need be retained after addressing to their existing weaknesses.

He opines that CC was made a mockery by the Speaker in the previous Parliament by refusing to accept the group led by the present Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa as the main opposition in Parliament. As a result, he could not serve CC as the Leader of Opposition despite his majority in the opposition in Parliament.

What this reader says is true. If institutions that are set up under the Constitution are twisted to serve the personal agendas of those in power, good governance becomes a derogatory conception. This was indeed what happened to the good concept of good governance during the rule of the previous Yahapalana government. This pitfall should be avoided by the present government and society should always be on alert to prevent it from falling into that trap.

In this part, we look at how economic policy governance should be designed and implemented to attain the goals of the wider concept of good governance.

Economic policy governance

The rationale of economic policy governance could be explained by drawing on the viewpoints expressed by French economist, philosopher and legislator Frédéric Bastiat in two of his publications, one in 1848 and the other in 1850. In the first publication, ‘Selected Essays in Political Economy’, Bastiat has distinguished between a bad economist and a good economist.

A bad economist would see only what is seen at the moment and upholds a policy if it contains, at the very first glance, perceived benefits to society. A good economist would see through the effects of the policy that would come subsequently as well. Since such subsequent effects cannot be seen, they have to be foreseen. A good economist, therefore, confines himself to both seen and to be foreseen.

Economic policies which are being implemented by those economists in the government bureaucracy tend to overlook this ‘to be foreseen’ aspect because such an approach does not serve the objective of their political masters, namely, political expediency. Hence, they uphold only what is seen. If ‘to be foreseen aspects’ bring in unsavoury effects, the policies pass unexpected miseries on people who are supposed to be supported by them. As a result, it is necessary to assess both the ‘seen aspects’ and ‘to be foreseen aspects’ before any policy is introduced. This is the starting point of economic policy governance.

Legal powers of governments are to protect property and not to destroy it

Bastiat in his 1850 publication, ‘The Law’, has remarked that law is simply “the collective organisation of the individual right to lawful defence”. The ‘right’ referred to here is the right to person, liberty and property. The lawful defence involves the use of force to defend oneself and not to destroy the right of another to his person, liberty and property. “And this common force”, says Bastiat, “is to do only what the individual forces have a natural and lawful right to do: to protect persons, liberties, and properties; to maintain the right of each, and to cause justice to reign over us all”.

In such a society, according to Bastiat, order will prevail among the people in thought as well as in deed. It therefore, carries rights as well as responsibilities: right to protect oneself and responsibility not to destroy another’s. If the government does not intervene, says Bastiat, it would cause to develop a system in which people’s wants and their satisfaction would develop in a logical manner. Explains Bastiat this logical manner in The Law: “We would not see poor families seeking literary instruction before they have bread. We would not see cities populated at the expense of rural districts, nor rural districts at the expense of cities. We would not see the great displacements of capital, labour, and population that are caused by legislative decisions.”

Labouring is painful, but plundering is easy

Bastiat remarks that man can live and satisfy his wants by using his labour and mental faculties to natural resources ceaselessly, thereby giving birth to ‘property’. But man can also acquire property by plundering the properties developed by others. Since this is the less painful and easier way to acquire property than expending one’s labour, there is a natural tendency, according to Bastiat, for plundering rather than labouring.

Because of this natural tendency, Bastiat says that neither religion nor morality can stop people from resorting to plundering of property owned by others. Though the force of law is to be used to stop plundering of property, alleges Bastiat, those who wish to plunder would acquire power to make laws that enable them to engage in lawful plundering. The result is a chain of events that converts law, instead of an instrument of protection, to an instrument of lawful plundering.

Governments extract private resources

Modern governments, for practical reasons, cannot be relegated to laissez faire governments with least intervention in the economy, though that has been the most ideal form. Hence, powers have been given to governments to frame economic policies to lead nations to prosperity, a common goal of all nations. These powers enable governments to extract resources from society through taxation, coercive expropriation or generating price inflation in the economy and expend the same back on society.

The criterion to be used by governments in this seemingly public good delivering exercise is simple: What is delivered to society should be more than what is extracted from it. But these powers, contrary to the good intentions they underlie, could be abused by bad economists in authority. They could just highlight only what is seen and put into effect systems that permit lawful plundering of property developed by one class by a class they favour. Such bad economic policies bring in a loss to society on a net basis highlighting the need for establishing proper economic policy governance systems.

Institutions are values and beliefs in society

In modern times, plundering of economic resources has been explained as the cause for some nations to fail while others to succeed by two economists, Daron Acemoglu of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and James A Robinson of Harvard University. In their 2012 book, ‘Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty’, the two economists have argued that it is all to do with the nature of institutions a country has.

Institutions for economists are not the institutions which are commonly meant in society. In economics, they mean ‘the rules influencing how the economy works and the incentive structure that motivates people to do what they do’. In other words, institutions are simply the values, beliefs and behavioural patterns that guide a nation as a whole.

This is equally applicable to individual units functioning in an economy such as a family or a company and to their aggregation at national levels which are called nations. They have called the type of institutions that cause nations to fail as ‘extractive economic institutions’; in the opposite, those who contribute for nations to succeed are called ‘inclusive economic institutions’. A classic example, according to Acemoglu and Robinson, to illustrate this has been provided by North Korea and South Korea which are made of the same ethnic stock, the same geographical attributes and the same natural endowments.

North Korea drives youth to despondency

Teenagers in North Korea are beset by a common institutional structure: growing up in poverty without entrepreneurial initiative, creativity or adequate education that equips them for skilled work. The accepted value system is that even if one works hard, one is not able to enjoy its fruits since it is immediately appropriated by the state. It forces some of them to get into illegal economic activities which are high cost and high risky. For others, it is a life of despondency.

But in the South, the youth have prospect of growing up into success through good education and excellence in chosen vocations. They are aware from early in life that if they are successful as entrepreneurs or workers, they can enjoy the fruits of their hard labour. They have the prospect of improving their standard of living. The institutional structure in North Korea is extractive while that in South Korea is inclusive. In extractive institutional systems, the state plunders the fruits of hard work by its population through various devices and apportions them among those who support or are made up of the top echelon of the government.

Say Acemoglu and Robinson: They are “extractive because such institutions are designed to extract incomes and wealth from one subset of society to benefit a different subset”. In contrast, “inclusive economic institutions create inclusive markets which not only give people freedom to pursue the vocations in life that best suit their talents but also provide a level playing field that gives them the opportunity to do so”.

Facilitating politicians prosper extracting economic institutions

Acemoglu and Robinson say that extractive economic institutions are prospered by the type of the political setup prevailing in a country. If the political parties or those who lead political parties wield exclusive political power, that is, only they could engage in illegal acts with impunity and not others, the whole economic system is converted to an institutional system that preys on others to sustain itself. Extracting resources from others is considered a normal and moral activity by politicians and those who are around them.

The values that are implanted into the psyche of all those in society have only one element. That is, robbing from society, either through government or through the market by means of franchises bought from politicians, is a normal legitimate activity. In such a system, misusing state property for private gains is considered an innocent activity which should not be an offence to be handled by law enforcement authorities or an immoral act to be discussed publicly by civil society.

Thus, all institutions in government or in civil society are converted to instruments supportive of extraction. An example was the recent downplaying, by a former President as a very trivial act, of using some 20 odd vehicles belonging to the state for private commercial gain by a top politician in Sri Lanka. Such tolerance of the acts of extraction supported by its justification in public leads to the establishment of a value and belief system endorsing what extractive economic institutions do in society.

Wholly inclusive economic institutions are the best

Economic policies can create either extractive institutions or inclusive institutions or a mixture of both. Extractive institutions will plunder resources from beginning to the end. Inclusive institutions will prosper resources and allow citizens to enjoy the fruits of their labour. The mixture of both extractive and inclusive will provide a better deal to society depending on the relative importance of the extractive side or inclusive side in the whole institutional structure.

If the extractive side is preponderant, then, it is as bad as extractive institutional setup created by the first type; in a setup where inclusive type is preponderant, it is still acceptable though it is not the ideal setup which a society should aspire to have. That is because it does not allow a society to have the best for its future. The 19th Amendment to the Constitution is not perfect but it is still a step taken in the correct direction. Hence, throwing it away in toto will deny an opportunity for society to establish inclusive institutions.

Dismiss extractive institutions

So, what is to be dismissed by a society is a structure in which institutions are wholly or preponderantly extractive. What is to be aspired is a wholly inclusive institutional structure; a structure where inclusive aspects are preponderant maybe accepted as a temporary arrangement until a society moves to a wholly inclusive institutional structure.

Economic policies should not prosper extractive institutions

So, what is the responsibility cast on economic policy makers? They should avoid policies that lead to wholly extractive or preponderantly extractive institutional structures. If any policy leads to a structure where inclusive side is preponderant, they should have that policy under continuous surveillance so that they could adopt measures to change into wholly inclusive institutional structures as the final goal of policy.

Contributors to extractive institutions

How could an extractive or preponderantly extractive institutional structure be established in society? There are two contributors. One is the general policy being implemented by the state favouring or promoting economic extraction. The other is the individual policies that permit one setup of society to extract economic resources from another setup.

Governments’ failure will generate extractive institutions 

In the first case, governments’ failure to uphold three good governance requirements will change the entire value and belief system in society. They are the non-observance of the rule of law, violation of property rights and toleration of bribery and corruption in society. When these bad elements are supported by the prevailing exclusive political setup, the nation descends to a perilous state.

The program to introduce constitutional reforms in Sri Lanka after the Presidential Election in January 2015 sought to address this issue. The implementation of the program only halfway through has denied society the benefit which it sought to bring in. Hence, the system of governance in Sri Lanka after the Yahapalana government was formed is not different from what prevailed prior to Presidential Election in January 2015. As such, the country has the same risk with respect to economic policy governance.

Economic policies should be made by technically qualified experts and not politicians

The individual policies are in the hands of the economists working under political authorities. If they fail to assess the outcome of a policy as it pertains to today as well as in the future, the overall impact of the policy, whether it is wholly extractive, wholly inclusive or a mixture of both, is not taken into account. This is the working of the bad economist referred to by Bastiat. The result is a net loss to society.

To prevent such a net loss, economic policy making should be handed to a group of technically qualified individuals instead of leaving in the hand of a single official or a single politician or a group of politicians. Such group assessment will prevent the implementation of policies that do not bring in overall economic benefits to society. Hence, economic policy makers should be made accountable even after they leave office if the policies which they have implemented have brought a net loss to society by allowing one group of people to extract resources from another group of people.

These are important requirements which have to be put in place in order to satisfy economic policy governance. Since it is unlikely that politicians would implement them on their own, it is important to empower civil society so that an effective voice could be made whenever there are deviations from the accepted policy.


Governance in both political and economic spheres has been an important element in ensuring sustainable development of a society. However, issues relating to governance arise due to two interconnected reasons: Principal-Agent problem and selfish behaviour of individuals. In ancient times, kings or rulers were required to observe 10 royal qualities of government obviating the necessity for enforcing governance requirements from outside. In modern times, such self-discipline cannot be expected of rulers and therefore it has become necessary for societies to enforce governance codes as explicit requirements.

Sri Lanka’s post-conflict situation has thrown an enormous challenge at the country’s political leadership. That is, through good governance measures, to establish ethnic, racial and religious harmony among diverse groups living in the country. Such harmony is needed to avoid the repeat of a costly experience which the country had to undergo during the past three and a half decades. It requires on the part of the political leaders to act with foresight. Good governance principles require that foresight to treat all ethnic groups in the country as shared partners of a common destiny rather than considering one group as conquerors and others as defeated subjects.

*The writer, a former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, can be reached at waw1949@gmail.com

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Latest comments

  • 0

    W.W.Wijewardene wrote an article under the heading, ”Maligned 19th Amendment: Are Critics Aware Of Its Value For Sustained Prosperity?”and concluded his article with …….to be continued……..

    In that article, he wrote about the 19A that will lead to good governance and that good governance will in turn to economic prosperity.
    However evidence for his hypothesis was lacking in that article. However we were patience and was waiting with expectation that he would conclusively prove his hypothesis in the subsequent article.

    Now we have this article, ‘Economic Policy Governance A Must If Good Governance To Succeed: Part II’.

    Is this Part II of his earlier article? If so, we are disappointed.

    Instead, he talks about “how economic policy governance should be designed and implemented to attain the goals of the wider concept of good governance’.

    He was silent about 19A or how it leads to good governance and that good governance will lead to economic prosperity?

  • 1

    The essence of this article, which I consider it as a continuation of his previous article, is that Bad Governance creates, nurtures and do all sorts of extractive institutions. In raw political Sinhala it is “සුරා කෑම”. We, alas! were and are witnesses of this. All loss making institutions are sustained by Taxpayers’ money, again an action of “සුරා කෑම”. An abracadabra was done in the name of the bond scam targeting the EPF of people, a “සුරා කෑම” of the highest kind. Chaps indeed thrives on “සුරා කෑම” when they deforest areas expressly forbidden by law. I am watching very carefully what is going on. Alas! there a quite number of personalities who sustain on “සුරා කෑම”. It appears that they are quite dormant for the time being. Let us hope the impossible, that is from dormancy of the bad to be good, civilized blokes!

  • 2

    You were the Deputy Governor of CB. Was there ‘Good Governance’ in CB during your time?
    The kind of things reveled in the investigation on ETI is mind boggling. Those in Non-Banking Financial Institutions have oiled the palm of CB staff in millions of Rupees. In case of ETI, those who monitor Non-Banking Financial Institutions have turned a blind eye to misusing money of depositors for their personal matters.
    While the investigation is going on CB decided to close ETI and pay Rs.600,000 to each depositor and wash their hands off and take ETI Directors off the hook.

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