CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – While the threat of another default still hangs in Argentina, the country has made headlines for another reason: a growing number of its leaders, including President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, are starting to fall behind a proposal to move the capital of Buenos Aires to the much smaller (and seemingly sleepy) city of Santiago del Estero in the north-central part of the country.
Ms Kirchner and others say the move would bridge the gap between Buenos Aires, the cosmopolitan metropolis of over 12 million people, and the hinterland. But as appealing as it may be at first glance, the relocation of the capital could actually make matters worse for the besieged country.
Moving a capital city is more common than you might think. Over the past century, there has been on average one move every six years, including to Brasilia, Brazil (from Rio de Janeiro); Astana, Kazakhstan (from Almaty); and Naypyidaw, Myanmar (from Yangon). Many other countries have considered it, including Argentina itself in the 1980s, or still are, such as South Korea.
The explicit reasons for these movements range from congestion problems in an overcrowded capital – one of the reasons given by the Nigerian government for moving its capital from Lagos to Abuja in 1991 – to the need to develop backward regions or to balance regional rivalries. Other governments cite the need to protect against foreign threats, whether real or largely imagined.
Just below the surface, however, another threat often looms: the specter of political upheaval. The history of political rebellions underlines the particular role played by the capital in determining their fate. A small crowd in the capital can shake up the government in a way that much larger crowds further away cannot. So it follows that a faltering government would consider moving its capital from a large population center to an isolated, planned refuge – just as the junta in Myanmar did when it moved from a noisy city of Yangon.
Argentina is not on the brink of civil war or a military coup, of course, and its government is worlds far removed from the Myanmar junta – or the Argentina of yesteryear, d ‘elsewhere. Yet the country has a history of unrest, and the streets of Buenos Aires have often been a major player in political crises, even in recent years. Politicians have felt the pressure, including in their personal and family lives, and many Santiago del Estero supporters may be well aware of this story.
But as I discovered in recent research with Quoc-Anh Do from Sciences Po in Paris and Bernardo Guimaraes from the São Paulo School of Economics in Brazil, moving a capital to consolidate the stability and position of a government can have dangerous side effects: relatively fragile states and democracies, governments in more isolated capitals are less efficient, less responsive, more corrupt and less able or less willing to maintain the rule of law.
Why is it so? Being away from the masses can protect regimes from the threat of violent dismissal, but it also reduces the degree of accountability they face and their incentives to behave well.
Nor is it a problem reserved for unelected regimes and faltering democracies. In other research, Professor Do and I have shown that isolated state capitals in the United States – Albany and Springfield, Illinois, among others – are also associated with poor governance.
Politicians in New York and Illinois don’t worry about their lives being taken by revolutions, of course. But the media and voters are less interested in covering and knowing them when they are far from state urban centers. When the cat is away, it seems, mice can continue to take bribes.
The same can be expected if Argentina moves its capital from the bright lights of Buenos Aires to the isolated plains around Santiago del Estero. While Argentina is hardly a model of good governance today, stepping away from the big city’s talkative media and its educated, cosmopolitan population is unlikely to help.
Of course, there may be mitigating factors. Take Argentina’s neighbor, Brazil. Until the 1960s, the two countries had parallel histories of political instability, but their paths diverged when the Brazilian government moved to distant Brasilia, where it has since enjoyed a more stable political system. (It’s hard to say if the move was part of the reason for the stability, or just a coincidence, of course.)
The power of the streets of Buenos Aires can help keep politicians on their toes, but on the other hand, this does not seem to be the type of responsibility that is most conducive to institutional development. Political unrest is costly, so the protection offered by an isolated capital may not be a bad thing, regardless of the motivations behind the proposed move.
Still, Argentines should be careful when considering the implications of the idea of moving the capital to Santiago del Estero. While a dramatic decision may be appealing as a fresh start, it could end up exacerbating the governance challenges of the country. Capitals, like flags, are symbols, but their choice has very real consequences.