Rule of Law and Economic Growth
Economic growth depends on many factors. Key among those factors is adherence to the rule of law and protection of property rights and contractual rights by a country’s government so that markets can work effectively and efficiently. Laws must be clear, public, fair, enforced, and equally applicable to all members of society. Property rights, as you might recall from Environmental Protection and Negative Externalities are the rights of individuals and firms to own property and use it as they see fit. If you have $100, you have the right to use that money, whether you spend it, lend it, or keep it in a jar. It is your property. The definition of property includes physical property as well as the right to your training and experience, especially since your training is what determines your livelihood. The use of this property includes the right to enter into contracts with other parties with your property. Individuals or firms must own the property to enter into a contract.
Contractual rights, then, are based on property rights and they allow individuals to enter into agreements with others regarding the use of their property providing recourse through the legal system in the event of noncompliance. One example is the employment agreement: a skilled surgeon operates on an ill person and expects to get paid. Failure to pay would constitute a theft of property by the patient; that property being the services provided by the surgeon. In a society with strong property rights and contractual rights, the terms of the patient–surgeon contract will be fulfilled, because the surgeon would have recourse through the court system to extract payment from that individual. Without a legal system that enforces contracts, people would not be likely to enter into contracts for current or future services because of the risk of non-payment. This would make it difficult to transact business and would slow economic growth.
The World Bank considers a country’s legal system effective if it upholds property rights and contractual rights. The World Bank has developed a ranking system for countries’ legal systems based on effective protection of property rights and rule-based governance using a scale from 1 to 6, with 1 being the lowest and 6 the highest rating. In 2013, the world average ranking was 2.9. The three countries with the lowest ranking of 1.5 were Afghanistan, the Central African Republic, and Zimbabwe; their GDP per capita was $679, $333, and $1,007 respectively. Afghanistan is cited by the World Bank as having a low standard of living, weak government structure, and lack of adherence to the rule of law, which has stymied its economic growth. The landlocked Central African Republic has poor economic resources as well as political instability and is a source of children used in human trafficking. Zimbabwe has had declining growth since 1998. Land redistribution and price controls have disrupted the economy, and corruption and violence have dominated the political process. Although global economic growth has increased, those countries lacking a clear system of property rights and an independent court system free from corruption have lagged far behind.