23 Nov 2020
CASE Reports

The Rule of Law and its Social Reception as Determinants of Economic Development. A Comparative Analysis of Poland and Germany

The rule of law, by securing civil and economic rights, directly contributes to social prosperity and is one of our societies’ greatest achievements. In the European Union (EU), the rule of law is enshrined in the Treaties of its founding and is recognised not just as a necessary condition of a liberal democratic society, but also as an important requirement for a stable, effective, and sustainable market economy. In fact, it was the stability and equality of opportunity provided by the rule of law that enabled the post-war Wirtschaftswunder in Germany and the post-Communist resuscitation of the economy in Poland.

But the rule of law is a living concept that is constantly evolving – both in its formal, de jure dimension, embodied in legislation, and its de facto dimension, or its reception by society. In Poland, in particular, according to the EU, the rule of law has been heavily challenged by government since 2015 and has evolved amid continued pressure exerted on the institutions which execute laws. More recently, the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic transformed the perception of the rule of law and its boundaries throughout the EU and beyond (Marzocchi, 2020).

Against this background, this study examines the rule of law as a determinant of economic development in Germany and Poland from both the de jure and de facto perspectives, in line with the following research questions:

Research question 1: What formal institutions constitute the rule of law to the extent relevant to economic development in the countries under analysis – in other words, what is the state de jure of the rule of law?

Research question 2: What is the social reception of those institutions to the extent relevant to economic development – in other words, what is the state de facto of the rule of law?

Research question 3: How does the state de facto of the rule of law impact economic development in the countries under analysis?

The problem that we undertake to research is multifaceted and highly complex. We address the former challenge with a multidisciplinary approach. Taking rules, or norms, as the leading theme of the project and the common denominator of its respective parts, the study bridges two research fields, new institutional economics and sociology of law, contributing to both of them. We believe that by confronting legal norms with social norms – which are often overlooked by legislators – and by grounding our econometric analysis in solid sociological considerations – which are  usually disregarded or relegated to assumptions by economists – we will capture synergies that have so far been missing in academic literature.

Defining the rule of law. The rule of law is a subtle and evolving concept, and any attempt to define it would merit a separate study. In theoretical legal literature, a differentiation is usually drawn between the formal and the substantive approaches to the rule of law (e.g. Krygier, 2015; Waldron, 2016). In the formal approach, which is usually associated with the Anglo-Saxon conception, the rule of law consists in the rightful procedures – such as separation and balance of powers, timely and orderly publication of laws, and the functioning of an independent judiciary. In the substantive approach, more akin to the German Rechtsstaat, substantive elements such as rights and freedoms deemed inalienable – in the economic context, inter alia, property rights, economic freedom, and freedom from corruption – also become integral components of the rule of law.

In parallel, economists have transcended the boundaries of their science, proposing several candidates for extra-economic causes of economic growth. New institutional economics, in particular, focuses on studying the rule of law as one of the core institutions determining economic growth. According to this stream of research, institutions may be contract‑enabling and stimulate economic growth if they decrease transaction costs (i.e. the costs related to the identification of a suitable transaction, the negotiation of a contract with the transaction partner, and the enforcement of the contract) and increase inclusiveness (i.e. the degree to which diverse parties can participate in a transaction, thus contributing to the societal pool by way of skills and effort). In contrast, institutions are contract-disabling if they increase transaction costs and create ‘clubs’ with special privileges.

Because our study has direct economic relevance and is based on existing literature in the field of institutional economics (e.g. Acemoğlu et al., 2005a), we distinguish and account for those emanations of the rule of law that satisfy one or both of the above-mentioned criteria, namely:

  1. separation and balance of powers;
  2. the independent judiciary;
  3. legal certainty;
  4. economic freedom;
  5. property rights;
  6. anti-corruption regulations;
  7. free media;
  8. items of general relevance (e.g. non‑discrimination, state liability).

Clear, certain, and predictable regulations permit economic actors to plan their actions, allowing them to efficiently manage their resources. Property rights secure ownership of assets, driving down the costs of securing them by private means. In particular, intellectual property rights, by allowing companies to recoup investment and reap returns, play a crucial role in driving innovation. As such, they are particularly important to innovation-based economies (such as Germany) and economies facing a transition to the innovation-based model (such as Poland). Economic freedom ensures equality of opportunity, allowing everyone to contribute to the common pool. Fortified by anti-corruption mechanisms, economic freedom ensures the optimal allocation of resources, as seen for instance in merit-based employment and competition-based project financing (in contrast to arbitrary allocations, such as by nepotism or cronyism). The checks and balances built into the political system keep it from being hijacked by certain interests and are strengthened by the public scrutiny routinely performed by free media. Acting as a referee, the independent judiciary provides insurance to companies and households through which contracts are enforced (e.g. default), the decisions of state authorities are reviewed (e.g. in tax disputes), and the unfair practices of other market participants (e.g. unfair competition) are screened out.

Authors and contributors (in alphabeticalorder):

CASE -Center for Social and Economic Research: Krzysztof Głowacki, Christopher Hartwell, Kateryna Karunska, Jacek Kurczewski with contributions from Maria Krell

European Academy Berlin: Elisabeth Botsch, Tom Göhring, Weronika Priesmeyer-Tkocz


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