More on Corruption

I found this discussion of Blagojevich and political corruption in the U.S. more generally very interesting. My friend Chris Hayes raises a question that really interests me: Why are some places so much more corrupt than others? Corruption expert Kim Long notes that corruption seems to have largely cleared up in many cities that used to have problems with it. So what explains that?

The most cynical story is that nothing has changed and what used to count as corruption has simply been formalized. I think the following is more likely: Better monitoring technology plus economic growth shifts the expected payoff from production relative to the payoff for political predation. This, in turn, creates new expectations and improved norms, and a lot less corruption.

Here’s an interesting possibility… Maybe we used to be in an especially bad equilibrium in which most people naively trusted politicians, which only made it more likely for bad people to get and abuse power. If we have become at once (a) more skeptical of people with power and (b) less likely to abuse power when we have it, that would certainly explain a reduction in corruption. Some good government types think encouraging skepticism of power simply encourages abuse of power by communicating that we expect power to be abused. Some public choice types are so skeptical of the possibility that people might simply become less prone to corruption that they think discouraging skepticism of power is a dangerous encouragement of corruption. Is there an untenable cognitive dissonance involved in encouraging skepticism of power while at the same time encouraging norms of public-minded professionalism among politicians? I don’t feel like I have any problem with it, but then I’m weird.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center