In places where social capital is abundant and the electoral system allows for individual preferences, voters hold politicians accountable to high standards of behaviour by choosing politicians who’ll misbehave less when in office and by punishing, at the following elections, those who misbehaved during the previous term. The same, though, is not true for places where social capital is scarce.
Tommaso Nannicini, Guido Tabellini (both Department of Economics), Andrea Stella (Federal Reserve Board) and Ugo Troiano (Harvard University) draw these conclusions studying the Italian parliamentary elections in the period 1948-2001 in Social Capital and Political Accountability, forthcoming in American Economic Journal: Economic Policy. “Italy”, they write, “is an ideal setting to study these questions, because within Italy there are large differences in social capital and other related cultural traits”.
They use per-capita blood donations as an indicator for social capital and operationalize misbehaviour in two different ways for two distinct periods. In the first period (1948-1993) Italy had a proportional electoral system with the possibility to express individual preferences and members of Parliament enjoyed parliamentary immunity; in the second period (1994-2001) the electoral system shifted to a mix of majoritarian (first past the post) and proportional with closed lists and immunity was dropped. From 1948 until 1993 the indicator is represented by prosecutors’ requests to proceed with a criminal investigation against a member of Parliament (Richiesta di autorizzazione a procedere, RAP); from 1994 on the scholars’ indicator is the absenteeism rate of the members of Parliament.
Nannicini, Tabellini and their co-authors find that the incidence of RAP is significantly lower in districts with more social capital and moving from the lowest level of social capital (recorded in the province of Caltanisetta) to the highest (Cremona) reduces RAP by 31.3%. Similarly, after 1994, moving from the lowest to the highest level reduces absenteeism by 58.13%.
The reduction, though, doesn’t apply to the proportional tier with closed lists, showing that “the effect of social capital is only present where political institutions allow politicians to be held accountable, and not under institutions associated with a lower degree of political accountability”.
There is also evidence, even if less robust, that politicians elected in majoritarian elections devote less effort to activities targeted at narrow, local interests when social capital is higher.
The magnitude of the punishment of misbehaviour in districts with above-median social capital is rather large. Before 1994, receiving a RAP for any type of wrongdoing reduced individual preferences at the following election by 9% (21% for serious crimes), while it had no impact in the districts with social capital below the median; after 1994 an increase of a standard deviation in the absenteeism rate reduced the probability of reelection by nearly one third in provinces with above-median social capital, while it had a slightly positive effect in the others.
“Our findings”, the authors conclude, “can explain why political corruption and clientelism seem to be much more prevalent in countries and regions with low social capital. If voters fail to coordinate in punishing political misbehaviour, their elected representatives face weaker incentives to pursue social welfare. Moreover, political representatives are less likely to be selected on criteria of honesty and general competence”.