Observing Clientelism through the lens of Political Philosophy

In this blog post, I refer to two academic papers to gain insights on what kind of Political framework would help reduce the negative effects of Clientelism in Lebanon.

Political philosophy asks questions that we must ask ourselves as citizens of a democracy to be responsible participants in our shared governance, questions such as how society should best be structured to enable people to live prosperous lives, questions such as the appropriate division of rights and responsibilities in society, questions such as how the legitimate concerns of freedom on the one hand and equality on the other should be balanced. (3)

Phases of Political System in Lebanon.

Democracy in Lebanon developed in several phases. These phases included several types of coalitions: (i) small coalitions that provided a stable macroeconomic situation but an unstable security environment, as during the early "merchant republic" dominated by the interests of the Christian elite (there was only a brief period with a strong state that to some extent overcame the communal oligarchs during Shehab's presidency); (ii) large, overstretched coalitions with multiple groups that created high costs in budget deficits, as during the current post-Ta'if arrangement; (iii) fragmented governance, as during the 1975-90 civil war. (1)

Post Ta'if Political System.

In this arrangement, we had several sectarian groups bargaining (horizontally) with each other to form a national coalition, and within each group (vertically) to determine the relationship between political elites ("oligarchs") and "citizens." (1)

We had little choice in the matter or face continued violence in our lives. But, this sectarian arrangement has created one of the biggest problems, political clientelism.

The negative impact of political clientelism on public goods provision, governance and jobs.

Clientelism can be broadly understood as a "two-way alliance" between two groups of actors (the "patrons" and the "clients") characterised by: an unbalanced power structure between them, repeated personal transactions from which both sides benefit by participating in the alliance. (2) In my last blog post, I had written how these patronage networks have made citizens complicit with the sectarian elites in Lebanon.

An analysis of cross-country panel data for 161 countries from 1900 to 2017 is presented in the paper Clientelism, public goods provision and governance to find patterns of negative effects of political clientelism. (2)

A large literature examines the relationship between clientelism and corruption, public goods provision, and governance outcomes. It is proved that clientelism has a negative impact on development outcomes, with increases in clientelism leading to lower development outcomes. (2)

In Clientelism, Cronyism, and Job Creation in Lebanon (1), the author Ishac Diwan concludes that sectors with more politically connected firms (PCF) create fewer jobs than similar sectors with no PCF. That unconnected firms create fewer jobs in sectors where connected firms operate is to be expected, since they are likely to shrink as PCF's expand.

A manifestation of political clientelism is (a) vote-buying and (b) political parties offering material goods to their constituents in exchange for political support (also referred to as party linkages). Party linkages describe the kinds of goods parties offer in exchange for political support. Vote-buying refers to the distribution of money or gifts to individuals, families, or small groups to influence their voting decisions. (2)

Breaking the Clientelistic Networks.

The authors of the paper (2) offer some hope. In many developed countries - such as Italy, United Kingdom and the United States - clientelistic practices in politics were widespread in the first half of the 20th century and declined in the second half. (2)

A weak Lebanese state strengthens clientelism.

The fact that Lebanon has a weak state makes it even more difficult to combat clientelism. Political scientists have highlighted how Lebanon's political economy has favoured a weak state, as a protective mechanism for the various religious groups to maintain group autonomy. (1)

Clientelism lends stability to the current political system.

The existence of rents to be distributed within groups conditions the survival of the oligarchs and thus the stability of the entire political system. The ability of the oligarchs to conduct horizontal business is dependent on the absence of contestation within their community. Access to rents is fundamental to developing patronage networks, which are essential to winning elections and preventing alternative political forces from rising within the group. (1)

Rents were created by the introduction of subsidies for industries, the elimination of international competition by the imposition of non-tariff barriers to trade, or by the closure of entire sectors to foreign investors. (1)


It seems that the two measures that would curb clientelism are, first, to reduce rents by strengthening democracy through fair multi-party elections, plus we need freer media and an independent judiciary, and second is to build a stronger state (with more control over rents ). However, the stronger state should not come at the expense of freedom, but if Lebanon as a country could learn its lessons of democracy faster, we could reduce the negative effects of clientelism. These are my insights from these two academic papers. Let me know what you think by leaving me a message.

Side Note

According to available research, highly democratic or autocratic countries have low levels of corruption, while moderately democratic countries tend to have high levels of corruption. It has been argued that democratic institutions have an important effect on ensuring public goods, rather than the present degree of democracy. (2)


  1. Clientelism, Cronyism, and Job Creation in Lebanon.
  2. Clientelism, public goods provision and governance.
  3. Political Philosophy is How Societies Should Organize: Balancing Freedom and Community.


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