State Capacity in Latin America

Editor's Note: This paper is based on the Presidential Lecture of the Latin American and Caribbean Economic Association (LACEA) delivered in Buenos Aires, Argentina on October 3, 2009. It is forthcoming in the spring 2010 issue of Economía.


State capacity is exceptionally low in Latin America, even when compared to other former colonies. This paper analyzes four possible factors that could potentially explain this troubling feature: political inequality, economic inequality, interstate conflict and civil war. With the exception of external war, these variables have a negative effect on state-building in models where the accumulation of state capacity is analogous to  investment under uncertainty. These analytical predictions are then tested with cross-country data, paying special attention to Latin America. Democracy’s impact on state capacity is quite positive, as is the effect of the frequency of external wars when data for the last century is used. However, in the data for the last half century, external wars have little effect, but the negative effects of internal wars and income inequality become highly significant. The model explains why Latin America has failed to develop its state, despite the improvement in the various measures of democracy. In fact, both the theoretical model and the empirical evidence suggest that the effects of democracy are undermined in the presence of high economic inequality.