Theft by Head of State Stifles Law Enforcement Nationwide For Many Economic Crimes

When a national leadership commits crimes that are costly and unstoppable, law enforcement tends to fail not only at the national level but even against local imitators who lack protection from the leadership. This is likelier in developing countries in which national leaderships control substantial resources. It’s more likely when enough of the benefits of the crimes are distributed to co-opt enough people who might otherwise start thinking of how to stop them and, even better, to co-opt enough additional people into normalizing the behavior, further reducing the likelihood of enforcement. As a result, many national societies lack the means, including the political will, to rein in their national leaderships.

Grand kleptomania is practiced in numerous nations. It’s the theft, often of billions of dollars, by national leaders. It has happened in at least one nation powerful enough to keep a substantial arsenal of nuclear warheads and missiles, which is expensive to research, build, manage, and defend. In developing nations, the money often came from developed nations’ governments as foreign aid or investment capital. No one gets caught (usually) even when the suspects are fairly obvious. Most of the stolen money is never recovered. And more grants and investments, although maybe less than before, are paid in, adding to opportunities to pocket shiny stuff. That mummifies some poverty and the nation’s failure (so far) to become developed.

This excludes a nation with a national government that cannot control any substantial part of the nation’s resources. In those nations, most resources are locally or privately controlled well enough to be protected from theft at the national level, even if they are locally stolen in most local jurisdictions.

A minor portion of the stolen property is invested in foreign havens, in banks, real estate, and other instruments, often through disguises of people and property and complex record systems. Law enforcement is often difficult; cross-border law enforcement requires multiple governments to cooperate and thus tends to be even harder. When a haven or a constituent in it benefits from being a haven, the haven’s government may become conflicted about whether to cooperate and cooperation may be denied. But that only affects a minor part, likely not for early use. Meanwhile, the bigger piece of the pie is waiting to be consumed near home, sweet home.

Those Who Steal Together Stay Together

The Hand is Open

Reportedly, while an amount stolen is often so impressively large that no one in the national leadership can act alone to steal it but must conspire to grab the pile, most of the loot stays in the country. But a head of state who steals a billion and yet would pay no one any share of it would have, at most, two choices: hide it or get caught. Go buy a yacht while all your aides are on monthly ration cards slightly above the family starvation level and watch how fast you get handcuffed or shot. And most thieves are too impatient for hoarding, if they have any choice. So, if the crook wants to enjoy the fruits of their thievery, said crook must hand out some of the cash and let others satisfy their more modest but still illicit, preferrably illicit, desires as they wish.

No Way Out of the Norms

Spreading the wealth accomplishes long-term normalization and short-term immunity from prosecution or revolt. When a particular legal violation is normal, it’s almost meaningless to prosecute it. We see this on a smaller scale in developed nations: when most people drive at, say, ten miles an hour over the posted speed limit, they tend to believe that driving at only the speed limit is dangerous to other drivers. Those drivers speed even if they don’t need to, because the faster speed is normal but the legal speed is abnormal. If one police officer visibly tries to enforce the limit, the officer is deemed abnormal and most drivers, even when they know about the enforcement, continue speeding.

In some cases, a local government changes the law to reduce the penalty or remove it entirely. In some cases, enforcement is supplemented or even replaced by education, which is more popular, especially the variety that lasts only a few seconds.

Being normal is almost universally endorsed, both popularly and professionally, and is socially enforced. Violating norms can be dangerous to one’s own life or health. Thus, normalizing crime by distributing its proceeds so most people with middling power or above are recipients protects the theft-prone national leaders.

Normalization expands to many kinds of crime and beyond the capital city to across the nation, contributing to a nationwide inability to enforce laws.

Norms are not all sharply bounded, so that leadership would have one norm and the public would have a contrary norm and most of us could find the exact line of division. The differences between norms are in a gray zone. So, typically, a leader’s crimes are bigger and a public member’s crimes are smaller, but usually that’s because a member of the public has access only to fewer resources against which to commit crimes, not because the sense of permission is qualitatively different. What may be different is the desire. That crime is wrong and that some of the particular acts in question are crimes and therefore wrong is often publicly accepted, and, if noncriminal alternatives for meeting personal and familial economic needs are available and sufficient, that will often support a willingness to refrain from intentionally becoming a career criminal. However, getting enough above-ground alternatives may depend on committed and sustained economic development and is beyond the ability of a law enforcement system by itself.

Both the need for law enforcement and its weakness are visible to the public and thus lawlessness is reinforced as the prevailing model. Police officers, regulatory officials, and business employees often demand bribes from the public and there’s not much the public can do about it except go along and pay up. And, because paying a bribe requires assets, the public develops hustles, too. If becoming affluent is possible, the route to wealth is increasingly and perhaps necessarily through crime. Wealth becomes normally criminal.

How Great You Be

Letting more hands dip into the till also increases personal loyalty to the till’s dipper-in-chief. One cannot be sure that a successor will be similarly inclined and, if they are, that they will be helpful to the same people. Therefore, the system must be kept intact and the particular people who have become so noteworthy for their (unlawful) generosity must be kept stationed where they can continue to be reliable givers of (stolen) largess.

The head kleptocrat can thereby acquire a horde of protectors, even a literal army of protectors. Should judges, prosecutors, and investigators be bribed, blackmailed, or otherwise kept in line, they won’t be the first. Should anyone desire to be pure and have no evidence of wrongdoing, they could be replaced out of a job. Should anyone desire to be pure regardless of evidence of wrongdoing, perhaps their family could persuade them to be pragmatic. If nothing else works, it’s amazing what a tragic accident can do for the top stealer-in-thief’s safety and, in turn, for the loyalty of all other wealth-aggregators under the high kleptocrat.

What the Peasantry Faces

The public sees. It’s impossible to hide the essence of what’s going on. The legal evidence may be cleverly concealed, but when a lot of supreme officials start wearing Rolex watches and driving Ferraris that’s a clue. Especially when the public is frozen out from the goodies, the public can do not much more than observe the crime, discourse about it as simply being the way things are, and plan their own crime, often to alleviate the poverty already prevalent in a developing nation and worsened by the grand kleptomanics.

When local police commonly demand and collect bribes from the general public and nothing seems to be done about it, public confidence in the police wanes. That waning thwarts public support for any police effort to control high-level corruption. For law enforcement to work against any nation’s national leadership requires support from somewhere else, and, in a nation, that usually means from the public. Without that support, it’s almost suicidal to oppose the national leadership. People at high levels would know that, so the criminal justice system, even if solid on paper, is largely neutralized in practice.

Even if a foreign institution gets someone domestically appointed to be in charge of anticorruption efforts, it’s easy to render that person, while outspoken and sincere, almost powerless. This can happen if the appointee is underqualified, underfunded, and relatively isolated, so that hardly anyone is touched.

Organizing Crime

The lawlessness that predominates in the nation is official lawlessness, but total lawlessness does not exist. It could exist in pure anarchies that last long enough for babies to be born into them and be raised there, but those anarchies are probably only hypothetical.

Law minus official lawlessness leaves unofficial law. Unofficial law is the law established, promulgated if you will, by segments of the public, eventually agreed to by most of the public, and enforced by gangs and individuals. Vigilantism rises. Some of this is legal (like (often) when stores hire security guards) but much is flatly unlawful. Absent much official law, unofficial law likely will grow. This adds to the burden of official law enforcement but without adding to the power that official law enforcement has. Sometimes, the unofficial conveniently complements the official; but often it contradicts it. The enforcers of the unofficial do not have courts or prisons, so physical violence and murder become more common. Since criminals benefit from diversification of income and from efficiency, crime becomes increasingly extended and organized.

What’s Left for Government to Do

Paying taxes is a drain and increasingly unenforceable, so government tax revenue shrinks. When government provides less service than most people need, the national society deteriorates.

The world changes. New needs arise and old needs can’t always be solved the way they used to be. All needs may require new solutions. Developing new solutions, whether by government or by the private sector, generally requires innovation. Innovation is, however, often unpredictable, untrustworthy, and expensive. The government is short on tax revenue, and, when choosing where to spend what it has, innovation is near the bottom of the priorities. Innovation has little public support, preference going to the tried-and-true. So, innovation starves. Not only do many new needs go unmet, but many potential innovators are intelligent and knowledgeable people who can make good livings elsewhere. Many of them leave. To replace them in quantity takes years and is pricey. Meanwhile, the government is strapped for any way to pay for the next generation’s advanced education. So, the society deteriorates some more.

Foreign Faucets Flow a Little

Capital inflows, if withering, may not zero out. The remaining payors may anticipate benefits anyway, and may get them. The benefits may be in the realms of foreign and military policy. Still, relative to the potential, capital inflows will wither.



The education that’s needed is more than basic literacy. It’s more than what the leaders have decided it would be best for everyone to believe. It’s not obedience. It’s the inner workings of government, of private institutions, of finance, of water projects and housing supply and national defense, of everything that matters.

Some of it comes from schools. Much of it comes from academic studies and journalism and personal revelations, from books, newspapers, radio, and street corner conversations. Some people will specialize in some fields. Most people will need to know more than the national leadership considers basic and that the national leadership might consider enough for the plebians to know. Some of it will intrude on matters that are within the responsibility of the national leadership.

That will be good. It will take a while, but it will be useful.

Balance of Power

Instituting a balance of power between parts of the government and other powerful institutions can help solve the problem, but a balance of power without substance leaves an imbalance of power and thus is ineffectual. While no one can be a dictator of anything as large as a nation, even a less populous nation, that is because there is a balance of power within the leadership, such as with the military and a political party that may be the only major political party in the nation.

A model of a balance of power of which the public can take advantage is scarcer. Wherever the balance of power exists, it exists because participants have enough assurance of survival, education (including informal), and capital to be able to exercise that balance at frequent intervals (usually but not always on minor issues) and not just once every few generations or centuries (when governments get overthrown).

A balance of power is often harder to maintain and to operate in a developing nation. There, a large proportion of people tends to be poor. People who are poor tend, like everyone else, to be interested in politics but, being disproportionately busier with survival, think they can’t do much about politics and corruption among political leaders because they can’t afford the resources to devote to it. Even in the United States, a s survey found that most people thought the most they could do politically was vote, not even write a letter to an editor, and the U.S. counts as a democratic, experienced, educated, and developed nation. Thus, even if people who are poor have press freedom and courageous journalists, they can’t spend much to support the journalism and the journalists will therefore be limited in how much they can expose. And many developing nations have repression and don’t have much press freedom or freedom of information laws. Many developing nations don’t have large numbers of educated people publicly asking tough questions when $10,000 go missing, demanding answers in time to stop a million from vanishing.

When the handles of the balance of power do not reach the public, so most of the public has little ability to cause an effect on governmental decision-making, high crime by leadership can be limited to fewer people, those with the power to make changes although disinclined to do so.

Encouragement to Use and Drive to Challenge

To say that different societies incline differently about challenging their own leaders is to call for validation, empirical or theoretical, and that leads to asking why we might think there is a difference. It might be psychological, but that’s often something we say when we don’t know what else to say. While psychological diifferences exist at the level of the individual and the psychologies of individuals in a group can be combined (perhaps with substantial difficulty) to determine the collective psychology of the group, I argue for other factors to get greater attention.

History varies between cultures. Many, for example, were formerly colonized. The colonizers were not the same for all colonies. Different colonizers had somewhat different priorities and behaved differently, all maintaining their colonial bonds but with differences regarding economics, governance, religion, sociology, and so on. Africans, for example, were enslaved in North and South America but enslaved under somewhat different laws and constituting different proportions of the total societies in North vs. South America. As various colonies secured their independence, generally through civil wars, they established independent systems of, at least, governance, and did so partly in reaction to what they had suffered or (and this was less discussed) liked as the colonized (maybe all they liked was a particular brand of consumer product but they liked it well enough to try to continue importing it, the preference for that brand distinguished that colonizer, and it may not bbe the only thing liked). All else equal, when colonial experience differed and independence is achieved, the immediate postcolonial experience is likely to be different, and often in ways that are significant. As a result, even among cultures that waged civil war for independence, how a culture reacts to its own postcolonoial leaders is likely to vary, and specifically under what circumstances and how a culture challenges its own leaders is likely to vary. While many initial postcolonial leaders may tend to be authoritarian (the first one for the U.S. was a military general), there being an important agenda that the postcolonial public demands be fulfilled on the basis of years of preindependence discussion and commitment, how the initial leaders respond to public disagreements will vary partly because of that history but also partly because of the personality of the leader. Complications arise and, with the passage of decades and centuries, they become much more coomplex, although contemporary cultures also influence each other and may, in some ways, converge. In short, then, societies will differ on how closely they will monitor their national leaderships.

However, even if a postcolonial society was unwilling to question its own leadership, that does not doom it never to question its leaders. As one example, the U.S. not only questions its national leaders, even votes them out of office despite their eligibility and vigorous campaigns, even impeaches a few of them and strongly encouraged one to resign years before he intended to leave, all while maintaining continuity of government, but the U.S. does it quite visibly to the world. People around the world are free, as far as the U.S. is concerned, to read our newspapers and view our television stations if they can work out the physical logistics. Foreign press send reporters to cover our national elections. Foreign visitors, foreign students, foreign employees, and foreign family members come to the U.S., make their observations, communicate with people in the nations they left, and return to the foreign nations. That usually does not cause revolutionary magic. But it might inspire models. And this is not just about the U.S., but also about France and South Africa and many other nations.

A political willingness to question and challenge, i.e., to impose public accountability, is necessary to limiting theft by the national leadership.


Meddling in a foreign nation is fraught with problems that often defeat someone who tries. Most nations likely have some isolationist tendency; its public may care little about anything outside of its borders, even war next door, as long as no one invades their own country. Most nations also have a tendency to identify interests on which they will work with other nations, perhaps commercial or perhaps one of military alliance against a common enemy. And most nations have a tendency to believe that everyone worldwide has the same responsibilities and rights and will turn out to be almost identical. What reconciles these contradictory tendencies is that in each nation not everyone has the same tendency: some people believe one way, other people another; and there are nuances and complexities.

Shared interests provide, I think, the strongest argument. Isolationism and universality are too difficult to sustain as bases for this argument. But a basis in shared interests is also difficult: outsiders want a new electricity generator built while the insiders think most people won’t take care of it anyway so rewarding the hardworking leaders is better. Not muc is shared there. But in the long run the generator can likely be agreed on and the need for credibility when accepting conditional capital can likely be agreed upon, too.

Law enforcement presumes that sufficient agreement on the laws has already been set. Grand kleptomania is a breakdown in that agreement. When the national leadership denies the validity of law enforcement against the leaders, the national leadership denies the validity of the laws themselves. When the national leadership is responsible for the promulgatioon of the laws, the national leadership denies the validity of the promulgatory process itself, including that it’s binding. Until the issues of process and of the existence of laws binding the national leadership are resolved in favor of binding promulgation and of existence of law, the nation in question is not ready for law enforcement.