Grand Kleptomania, Grand Theft National Treasure, Cure by Development

Say the top political leader steals a cool billion in local liquid assets. That leader wants to show that they’re a leader, a big shot, how powerful they are, so they expose some of the loot, to be conspicuous. Maybe they buy a boat so huge it’s called a ship, paint it gold, put a helicopter on top, hire a large crew and a personal chef, and sail up and down the nation’s biggest river or lake or right in front of an oceanfront beach. They open a Swiss bank account and buy American condos for cash, even while keeping most of the proceeds in the nation from which looted, where the booty is used to enhance personal power and not, say, to pay taxes or do aboveboard good.

Let’s call a spade a spade. It’s a crime. We shouldn’t call it kleptomania. That’s overly generous to the crooks. What they do is not a mental disease. We shouldn’t excuse perpetrators from responsibility for their decisions. It’s a crime because it’s based on responsibility.

But fixing this is complicated. It’s more than a problem of detection, arrest, trial, and sentence of one person perched at the top.

Descent into Shoveling the Public’s Gold

For the perp to stuff a vault the size of a house is not all roses and honey. It has a risk. If the only thief is the head of state, maybe aided by family members, the second-tier political leaders and their families will be outraged. The head and family could expect to get shot in a coup, perhaps by the head’s own guards. So, for protection, the head will either share the loot or permit others to steal, too, and maybe both. Once the second tier is satisfied, it will have to satisfy the third tier so the third tier doesn’t shoot the second tier, and so on going down and wide.

Eventually, stealing is the norm. Suddenly, people beg for government jobs. It gets to the point where, as happened a few years ago, a police officer enforced a demand for a bribe from a one-person fruit seller on the street. That’s corruption directed at the general population, and not at all hidden.

Simply replacing the head of state is not enough, even if their reputation is trashed. When a new head of state takes office (regardless of how), the second tier and the people likely to be recruited into the second tier won’t willingly tolerate the new boss not compensating them to the degree to which they and their families have become accustomed. Those people likely outnumber the boss by a large enough margin to leave the boss no alternative but to comply. As that compensation was partly unlawful, the unlawful part must be either continued or replaced via laws or agreements transparently allowing higher compensation, but those would be hard to justify with publicly available information on past performance, and thus would be politically hard, or impossible, to put into effect, especially in a developing nation, where most people are struggling to survive on compensation so low they stay in poverty. Continuing unlawful compensation where the difference is only in that the boss is no improvement in the eyes of the public is politically hard, hopefully impossible, unless a conspiracy among thieves covers it.

Replacing the second tier depends on the availability of people below them who qualify to be promoted. This is not a technicality. Necessary jobs have to be fulfilled by people who can. You can’t replace an accountant with someone who can’t count. If the thieving second tier of a nation can’t all be replaced, they can’t all be executed or jailed. If a nation is in an existential war, replacing all the top military officers by promoting military personnel up from three levels below because no one in between can be trusted is a recipe for losing the war and surrendering the nation, even when all those promoted are dedicated to saving the country.

If there’s time to bring skills up to what they should be, especially for emergencies and other fast-unfolding developments needing quick responses, it’s still probably a short time. Bringing the skills up in a short time is likely expensive. It’s likely a strain on the government’s budget, especially a strain because of the grand theft. Foreign aid coming in would help, but a nation with a recent history of many high officials stealing large volumes of money likely won’t handle massive new income responsibly and thus likely won’t be trusted by prospective foreign donors. Donors can send foreign managers with the foreign aid, but that will be widely objected to as foreign control. Those objections will manifest in restraints on the managers and evasion of the controls, including, often, new large-scale theft and destruction of institutions created by the foreign managers. The foreign aid is therefore largely either absent or ineffectual. Maybe skills development is unaffordable. In that case, even with time the skills cannot be brought up to minimum requirements. The nation could become clean but unable to function and then fail.

Thus, thievery may help the nation function and succeed. That’s a contradiction, not so much logically as in how societies must simultaneously rely on the rule of law, generally be safe and peaceful, and be strong in politics and self-sufficient in economics. The contradiction supporting criminality must be resolved by helping the nation function and succeed without crime. The help can be domestic or international or both.

If the stolen proceeds can’t all be recovered, and probably they can’t be, the most that can be done is to force the second tier to hide their spending or consumption of the stolen property. That, combined with the inability to remove people from office, is not much enforcement, but it may be the most that’s consistent with national needs. And it applies to every tier going down.

Not only the national government would be bad, because any local government that behaves well would make the national government look worse. So, any good government would have to be discredited and replaced. (There’s always a way to discredit a good government.) That tends to lower popular support for all government. If that continues through successive heads of state over years, it will tend to lower popular support for almost any government in the near future in that nation.

Support Falls and War Rises

The weakening of support creates a vacuum that will be filled first by cynical disbelief in strong prospects for good government. The disbelief can be followed by a demand for the bad government to be reformed or replaced as a whole. A government dependent on large-scale crime against the public for its own sustenance will likely refuse reform or replacement and will try to restrain the demand. When the demand is unfulfilled, it will be followed by the unsatisfied public seeking alternative authorities, thereby encouraging the birth of those as competing authorities, and then turning to them for a degree of leadership, perhaps religious, revolutionary, criminal, or local. Local need not follow prior legal boundaries but may result from fragmentation of a range of authority, including that which should be only in the hands of the highest level in a nation, including waging war (which is why we sometimes speak of warlords). Competing authorities often collect taxes (called by other names) from everyone or every business under their leadership, a sign of their prior success at establishing their authority. Maybe if a competing authority takes over the whole national government things will be good, but typically when it is only a competing body it competes in ways that are deadly or devastating to most of the people who live under both authorities at the same time.

Almost always, the competitor has only minority support from people it treats as beneath it, because it starts small before it tries to grow. The competitor is almost never democratically developed (even if it began democratically and whether a predecessor was democratically developed or not) and it can’t be even if it wants to be, because the legal government almost certainly won’t allow the application of democracy to that question, as just holding a referendum challenges the government’s own right to exist and to have law at all, so its political supporters almost universally oppose presenting the question to the public. The competitor therefore has to preserve itself and grow by being antidemocratic even while being helpful in some ways to many or most of the people under it. The antidemocracy effectively requires silencing of most of them and, silencing being resisted, is dangerous to most of them. Those people considered underneath are often effectively forced to violate laws of the legal authority or to refuse orders from the illegal competitor, or both, and to pay penalties either way, including, either way, with their lives.

Unless and until a competing authority displaces the official government, it is a continuing and growing threat, and so, when the threat grows above some threshold, the official government must displace the threat. This may escalate into civil war.

Civil Awareness

A more peaceful route is open to the public, which can try to force the government to change through civil means. Even the most repressive government needs people to do the repressing. If enough people try hard enough to limit the government contrary to the repression, the government can be forced to conform to public demands.

Grand national theft and local corruption are vulnerable: They normally fail unless hidden from their enemies. Most of the public and of the public’s institutions, such as private businesses, are against having to pay for theft and bribery.

At the same time, the public defaults to trusting its government, so the public won’t get concerned until aware of the government’s wrongdoing. The key is therefore to raise public awareness. That depends on developing sourcing the public will trust. That way, when the source or sources tell the public about what’s going wrong, the public will tend to believe it.

The sourcing in turn requires access to reliable information about the wrongdoing. To uncover wrongdoing and reasonable ground to suspect wrongdoing by government requires public access to people and to records. That has to be legislated, as it has been elsewhere, and the legislation has to be enforced, as it has been elsewhere.

The sourcing then must be widely published. While some media can be narrowly distributed, such as hyperlocal and topically specialized media, most of the public must find a range of media with reliable revelations.

Consumers of the information made public, including revelations and their importance, will have to understand it in order to benefit. That requires education, both direct (e.g., K–12 schooling or equivalent including self-teaching) and through economic development letting the public afford to support people, media, and other institutions who uncover wrongdoing while being trustworthy.

Educated consumers will also need time to absorb the findings of wrongdoing. The time must be unleashed by both the government and the sources. The government’s role is in relieving people from having to work all their waking hours so they have time to absorb what’s found, time not limited to that needed for official government statements that don’t admit wrongdoing by its own leaders but including time for news offered by independent sources. The sources’ role in unleashing the public’s time is in digesting and highlighting important parts, even while providing full content for those people who drill down, because not everyone has the time for digging but may catch headlines and lead paragraphs.

If the civil methods are prevented, the only alternative to the status quo is ultimately to reform or replace the government. It may be difficult, costly, slow, violent, and deadly, but that mainly means that choices must be made between the status quo and change and among means of achieving change.

Paltry Law

Foreign and domestic law enforcement are important and yet minor parts of a strategy for forcing return of stolen assets and extradition of alleged law violators. A multiprong strategy is key to staunching the thefts and deterring future major crime by the head of state against the head’s own nation and nationals, but it’s a threat to the existing order, which is profitable to some. Europe’s elites, for centuries, likely knew of experiments in democracy in Greece, yet local kings across the continent appear to have run monarchies with little by way of local democracy. And there were many monarchies. Reportedly, the King of France was, for a while, really the king of Paris and a few suburbs. In Scandinavia, by one report, there was another king every ten miles or so. France and Scandinavia survived against competition, so their second-tier leaderships may have seen only disadvantages in reform, and blocked it. The general populations likely couldn’t read and lacked much education. Religion was an important counterweight to secular government and religious leaders may have encouraged reading and education, but often for the purpose of religious compliance. The public was led by institutions that may not have cared for democracy, especially if the institutions didn’t practice it internally themselves. If there was no law on how the kingdom’s wealth was to be used, that might have been because the public was not allowed to have a say on that. Monarchies were not democracies.

Treaties and other international agreements could require better government, but the norms probably don’t and nations don’t agree to new international laws if they’re seen as too intrusive without a big enough trade-off. When they apply, as a practical matter enforcement is typically more difficult than enforcement of domestic law, because many people don’t want to help foreigners in foreign lands. We tend to be against them, even if they’re allies. We consider ourselves too busy. So, for example, many police officers are less passionate about putting effort into international enforcement without much domestic benefit. They have other things to do.

Domestic law, even if strong, has a fatal pitfall. Having someone enforce a law that includes a heavy penalty against their boss at any number of levels above is a heavy lift. If the maximum sanction against an enforcer is losing their job and the former enforcer can promptly get a new and very good well-paying job, the boss is limited in their ability to limit the enforcer, so an enforcer with that prospect can do more. But in many nations, particularly developing nations where heads of state do steal on a large scale, strong enforcers probably couldn’t find other good jobs if they need alternative careers, so they dare not try much enforcement, because those who do may get shot or suffer terribly tragic car accidents. There are ways to quietly assassinate people despite excellent reputations.


Creativity may solve this, but only together with persistence and cooperation among foreign partners in development willing to lose some funds meant for development but that become pocket linings for the crookedly rich until goals are finally met. Reputedly, some nations couldn’t care less about local corruption when it buys them something else they want. Anticorruption nations and parties may have to make a case that corruption harms the development of an international middle class as the superdominant economic class among three and the virtual elimination of poverty worldwide.