It’s not the act itself, it’s the hypocrisy. That’s the line on Paul Wolfowitz, coming from editorial pages around the world. It’s neither: not the act (disregarding the rules to get his girlfriend a pay raise) nor the hypocrisy (the fact that Wolfowitz’s mission as World Bank president is fighting for “good governance”).
First, let’s dispense with the supposed hypocrisy problem. “Who wants to be lectured on corruption by someone telling them to ‘do as I say, not as I do’?” asked one journalist. No one, of course. But that’s a pretty good description of the game of one-way strip poker that is our global trade system, in which the United States and Europe–via the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization–tell the developing world, “You take down your trade barriers and we’ll keep ours up.” From farm subsidies to the Dubai Ports World scandal, hypocrisy is our economic order’s guiding principle.
Wolfowitz’s only crime was taking his institution’s international posture to heart. The fact that he has responded to the scandal by hiring a celebrity lawyer and shopping for a leadership “coach” is just more evidence that he has fully absorbed the World Bank way: When in doubt, blow the budget on overpriced consultants and call it aid.
The more serious lie at the center of the controversy is the implication that the World Bank was an institution with impeccable ethical credentials–until, according to forty-two former Bank executives, its credibility was “fatally compromised” by Wolfowitz. (Many American liberals have seized on this fairy tale, addicted to the fleeting rush that comes from forcing neocons to resign.) The truth is that the bank’s credibility was fatally compromised when it forced school fees on students in Ghana in exchange for a loan; when it demanded that Tanzania privatize its water system; when it made telecom privatization a condition of aid for Hurricane Mitch; when it demanded labor “flexibility” in the aftermath of the Asian tsunami in Sri Lanka; when it pushed for eliminating food subsidies in post-invasion Iraq. Ecuadoreans care little about Wolfowitz’s girlfriend; more pressing is that in 2005, the Bank withheld a promised $100 million after the country dared to spend a portion of its oil revenues on health and education. Some antipoverty organization.
But the area where the World Bank has the most tenuous claim to moral authority is in the fight against corruption. Almost everywhere that mass state pillage has taken place over the past four decades, the Bank and the IMF have been first on the scene of the crime. And no, they have not been looking the other way as the locals lined their pockets; they have been writing the ground rules for the theft and yelling, “Faster, please!”–a process known as rapid-fire shock therapy.