A Resource Belief-Curse: Oil and Individualism

by Rafael M. Di Tella, Juan Dubra & Robert MacCulloch

Overview — Capitalism is not as widespread as economists would hope. Data from surveys of public opinion, as well as on the distribution of political parties, confirm the idea that capitalism doesn't flow to poor countries. In some countries, anti-market sentiment has increased in recent years, a period where the price of oil and other primary commodities have soared. This combination of anti-market sentiment and high oil prices has led to renegotiations of oil contracts and even nationalizations in some countries such as Bolivia and Venezuela. It is tempting for economists trained in the theory of political capture to argue that this is just another instance where special interests exploit the circumstances to make an extra dollar. Given that these nationalizations are often popular with the majority of voters, however, the researchers resist this temptation and ask if there are explanations where a positive correlation emerges between voter anti-market sentiment and dependence on oil. Key concepts include:

  • Antipathy toward markets has become particularly acute in Latin America.
  • In Bolivia, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Argentina, policymakers have focused their anti-market energies and attention on natural resource companies, in several cases even renegotiating their contracts.
  • A connection between dependence on oil and receptivity to populist rhetoric is both natural in economic models and has some support in the data.

Author Abstract

We study the correlation between a belief concerning individualism and a measure of luck in the US during the period 1983-2004. The measure of beliefs is the answer to a question related to whether the poor should be helped by the government or if they should help themselves, while the measure of luck is the share of the oil industry in the state's economy multiplied by the price of oil. The correlation is negative, suggesting that more reliance on luck is correlated with less individualism. We provide three short models that help interpret this correlation. One implication of this finding is that societies that depend heavily on oil, and perhaps natural resources more generally, will experience a heavier demand for government intervention. We argue that this is one aspect that the good design of policies on the extraction of oil and mineral resources should take into account.

Paper Information