Why Separate When You Can…Lustrate!?!

Today’s post by Maria Popova and Vincent Post, “What is lustration and is it a good idea for Ukraine to adopt it?” made me think about the difference between what I will call policy and discretionary purges.

It is not easy for a nation to fix itself after a period of authoritarian rule.  There are many individuals who actually compose the government, and it is not clear that they share the ideals of the new government and, even if they do, the worries about career concerns and adverse selection that I raised a few minutes ago here suggest that changing behaviors might be hard even if the vast majority of bureaucrats/judges/legislators agree with democratic norms, the rule of law, the relative inelegance of bashing your opponents’ heads in, etc.

So, one practical approach to fixing an institution in the sense of massively and quickly redirecting its aggregate behavior (as produced by the panoply of individual decision-makers’ choices) is what we might call wiping the slate clean.  Clear the decks, Ctrl-Alt-Delete the whole shebang.

Another way is to find the people who are the problem(s) and eliminate them.  The prospect of removal might, in equilibrium, convert some who were previously scofflaws into temperate and sage clerks, after all.

I want to make a quick point.  Removal of officials is practically hard (because those who fear removal will hide evidence and otherwise obstruct the Remover’s attempts to ferret them out).  But, more intriguingly, removal of officials is politically hard…for the Remover. In cases like the Ukraine, this isn’t because removal of any official is likely to be unpopular (it’s probably the reverse…just ask Vergniaud). Rather, the problem is one of adverse selection in terms of those who are judging the motivations and trying to predict the future actions of the Remover.[1]

To think about this clearly and quickly, consider the baseline case where the Remover “cleans house,” removing everyone, and then consider the deviation from this in which the Remover “forgives” one official, who I will call “Official X.”[2]

What should we infer?  Does the Remover really have information that exculpates Official X?  Or perhaps Official X paid a bribe?  Or perhaps Official X is blackmailing the Remover? Or perhaps…       You can see where this is going.  The Remover is at risk of being suspected of being or doing something untoward if he or she has and uses any discretion.  Accordingly, the Remover would prefer to not have discretion.

The same logic applies, obviously, to a plan of “well, let the Remover prosecute those who `should’ be removed.”  Unless the Remover’s hands are tied with respect to whom to prosecute, people will always have reason to wonder “well, Official Y got prosecuted….but not Official X….”

Is Lustration a good idea?  I don’t know.  And I will mention that Popova and Post are making a different point, which is really about the extent and severity of lustration.  My point here is just that “statutory/mandated purges” are very different from “executive/discretionary purges” and, somewhat counterintuitively, it may very well be in the interests of “the Remover” to have his or her discretion taken away.[3]


[1] Note that, as always, this is equivalent to a problem of credible commitment on the part of the Remover to “not use his/her biases” when deciding whom to remove.

[2] The logic holds generally (i.e., when the Remover forgives/pardons more than one official), but this focuses our attention in a nice way.

[3] I’m trying to keep these short, but I’ll note that this incentive is stronger for a Remover who believes that the external audiences who are trying to judge the Remover’s information/character/etc. are really uncertain about the Remover’s information/character/etc.  This is because high levels of initial uncertainty imply that the discretionary actions of the Remover will have a larger impact on the beliefs held by the members of the audience, and the adverse implications of discretion on these beliefs is the justification for the Remover wanting to limit his or her own discretion.