Corruption and Democracy

By Jacobs, James B. | Phi Kappa Phi Forum, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

Corruption and Democracy

Jacobs, James B., Phi Kappa Phi Forum

The relationship between corruption and democracy is complex and poorly understood. On first blush, it might seem obvious that corruption is democracy's enemy and that democracy is well-served by tough anticorruption controls. On reflection, however, it is not so simple. It is a mistake to conclude that democracy cannot take root in a country where corruption is widespread. Such a conclusion could serve as an excuse for not moving forward with social, economic, and political reforms and as a convenient explanation for all sorts of failures. It is also important to recognize that many initiatives taken in the name of fighting corruption may actually be pretexts for other goals, such as destroying political opponents. Even bona fide anticorruption controls are not necessarily effective in preventing corruption and do not necessarily increase governmental legitimacy or popularity.

Certainly in some democracies in the world corruption is commonplace--for example, in India, Brazil, the Philippines, and Italy. Within these countries, there may be a widely held myth of the inevitability of corruption. Within other democracies, regardless of the actual amount of corruption, there may be a widely held myth of integrity that remains unshaken despite one scandal after another.

In fact, the United States has a long and sordid history of corruption, especially in city government, but also in our state houses and presidential administrations. Anyone who needs a reminder would do well to read Robert Caro's wonderful biography of Lyndon Johnson, a book on Watergate, an account of Iran-Contra, an article on Bill Clinton's presidential pardons, or practically any day's copy of the New York Times. Just this week, for instance, articles appear on major corruption in Connecticut's state government, a federal investigation of corruption in Philadelphia, and the sentencing of Texas's former attorney general.

Widespread corruption occurs in the operation of our zoning boards, our drug war, and even our public schools. (See Lydia Segal's Battling Corruption in America's Public Schools, Northeastern University Press, 2003.) Most corruption never comes to light. However, the more that we invest in ferreting it out, the more we discover. Wherever we take a hard look, we can usually find at least some putative corruption. Just how corrupt a society is depends, of course, on who defines corruption and how. Can a society's corruption be judged only in terms of its own laws and morality, or can it be judged in terms of some universal definitions?


Corruption is notoriously hard to define. "Corruption" itself is a pejorative word that different people use to denounce different kinds of conduct, some of which is legal, some illegal, and some on the borderline between legality and illegality. Lawyers would probably prefer to talk about corruption in criminal-law terms: bribery, extortion, fraud, and theft. But bribery itself is an elusive concept. Individuals or firms can reward (now or later) those who act as they desire in so many ways--for example, direct payoffs to the compliant officer, indirect payoffs such as future jobs or investment opportunities, favors to the compliant officer's family members or friends. Societies are built around webs of reciprocal relationships and reciprocities. Distinguishing bribery from favor-doing and gift-giving is fraught with subjectivity. Until recently, for example, it was not illegal and perhaps not even considered corrupt for British MPs to take money from corporations in exchange for asking certain questions at Parliamentary sessions; indeed, some MPs sat on corporate boards. In the United States until recently members of Congress kept all unexpended campaign funds when they retired or were defeated; that is still the practice in many states. "Testimonial dinners" at which business executives and lawyers make gifts to politicians and judges were a common practice for generations. …

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