Economic Development Before the Law

One of the most pervasive and apparently self-evident assumptions of development economics is that sustainable investment and growth requires the rule of law. Without impersonal, general norms and their enforcement by independent judicial authorities, according to this view, little development, if any, is possible, because the risks facing both labor and capital – including corruption, arbitrariness, and rigid traditions – will be too high. But is this conventional wisdom always right?

Consider an admittedly limited but nonetheless revealing counter-example: South Africa’s booming mini-bus taxi industry. The mini-bus taxis developed in response to severe shortcomings in the country’s public transport system, one characterized by high prices, low-quality service, and a chaotic operating network, but they operate entirely outside of formal laws and regulations. What makes the industry work is a commonly agreed informal business “culture” that is flexible, innovative, and keeps operating costs down.