Based on a unique survey, complemented by field and archival research on the histories of the chieftaincies, paramount chiefs and ruling families of Sierra Leone as far back as sources could deliver, we developed a measure of institutional constraints on the power of paramount chiefs. Using this measure, we show that, consistent with the chiefs as despots view, in places where chiefs are less constrained and more powerful a variety of development outcomes are significantly worse. However, in contrast to expectations that would naturally follow from this view, these more powerful chiefs command greater respect, and their chieftaincies have greater levels of both bonding and bridging type of social capital, generally believed to be associated with better accountability and good governance.
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We argue that powerful chiefs lead to worse development outcomes because they distort incentives to engage in economically desirable activities through their control of taxation, regulation and the judicial system. Yet at the same time they are associated with higher levels of social capital, particularly bridging activities because they use this capital as a way to control and monitor society. This mechanism may also induce people to invest in patron-client relations with powerful chiefs, thus giving them a vested interest in the authority of chieftaincy. Thus in surveys people do say that they respect the authority of chiefs, but this is not a reflection of the fact that chiefs are effective at delivering services or public goods. Rather, it reflects the fact that rural people are locked into relationships of dependence on the traditional authorities.Fascinating, especially the way Acemoglu et al., engage the previous literature, by Mahmood Mamdani, in particular.