Political Corruption

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Political Corruption

Political corruption, otherwise known as government corruption, has been defined in numerous ways. Aristotle, the third-century Greek philosopher, defined it as the practice of leaders who rule with a view to their private advantage rather than the pursuit of the public interest. More recently, it has also been defined as behavior by government officials that violates publicly sanctioned moral standards. In the early twenty-first century the definition most commonly used among social scientists is that devised by Joseph S. Nye—the abuse of public office for personal enrichment. Such abuse occurs in many forms. The most common include bribery, extortion, embezzlement of government resources, violation of campaign laws, and electoral fraud.

Political corruption is often associated with regimes that are described as neo-patrimonial or kleptocratic. In these regimes, the ruler abuses public office by behaving as though all property in the country is his or her personal property. An example of a classic neo-patrimonial regime is that of Joseph Mobutu, known as Mobutu Sese Seko (1930–1997), in the Democratic Republic of Congo (Zaire). An example of an archetypical kleptocracy is that of Ferdinand Marcos (1917–1989) in the Philippines. Such regimes tend to be autocratic and less economically developed. But political corruption is found in all governments around the world, and it has been present throughout the ages. In his encyclopedic history of bribery, John T. Noonan provides examples of corruption from ancient Egypt to modern America. Contemporary political corruption appears prevalent in countries as diverse as Italy and India.


Although the phenomenon of political corruption is an ancient one, only in the 1960s did social scientists begin to analyze it systematically. One much-debated issue centered on its consequences. The debate began when scholars,

most notably Nathaniel H. Leff, questioned the prevailing view that corruption was harmful for economic development. The revisionists, as they came to be known, argued that bribery could be beneficial for less developed countries attempting to industrialize. Such countries require substantial investment, but their unstable governments make investors wary. Bribery, according to the revisionists, would provide investors with the means to ensure policy stability even as government officials changed. Bribery would also provide incentives for government officials to accomplish their tasks more quickly.

In 2004 the consensus among social scientists, based on numerous empirical studies, is that political corruption is detrimental to economic development. It lowers investment and leads to the misallocation of scarce government resources. It also increases income inequality within countries.


Unlike the issue of the impact of corruption, questions regarding its sources remain unresolved. The main debate exists between scholars who argue that corruption primarily results from the moral values of a society, and those who argue that it is mainly due to a country's economic and political institutions. More specifically, the first group of scholars posits that some societies have moral codes that lead them to deem as acceptable behavior that other societies consider corruption. Unless these societies develop new value systems, they will continue to be plagued by corruption. In contrast, the second group of scholars argues that both a reduction in corruption and change in values will occur with appropriate transformations of a country's economic and political institutions. Such changes include, but are not limited to, reducing the discretionary powers of government officials over the allocation of economic resources and ensuring free and fair elections for public office.

It is likely that both cultural values, on the one hand, and economic and political institutions, on the other, affect the extent of political corruption in any country. More research is needed, however, to determine the relative impact of these sources of corruption, so that reformers can target scarce resources where they will be most effective.


The arguments of social scientists notwithstanding, policy makers around the world have long recognized the need to combat political corruption. Some common strategies that policy makers have implemented include increasing transparency in government transactions, requiring top public officials to disclose their financial interests, providing legal protection for individuals who expose corrupt government officials, and creating anticorruption commissions to coordinate the implementation of anticorruption policies. The results in countries that have adopted these strategies have been mixed. Successful cases tend to be distinguished by the degree of their policy makers' commitments to anticorruption reforms. Strong commitments are often sustained only under strong public pressure.

In 1997 a novel strategy to combat corruption was adopted by thirty-five countries, including the thirty members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in addition to Argentina, Brazil, Bulgaria, Chile, and Slovenia. These countries signed a Convention on Combating Bribery of Foreign Public Officials in International Business Transactions. Before the Convention was signed, these countries had no laws against bribing foreign government officials. Many of their multinational corporations were free to bribe developing country government officials to secure contracts or business licenses. The Anti-Bribery Convention requires signatories to criminalize the bribery of foreign public officials and to declare that individuals who bribe foreign public officials will be punished as harshly as those who bribe their own national officials. It is still too early to determine whether the Convention has reduced bribery in international business transactions, but it is a welcome addition in the arsenal against corruption.

ferdinand marcos (1917–1989)

Born in Sarrat, Ilocos Norte, Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos was a brilliant student and attended the University of the Philippines on a scholarship. A few months before graduation, he was arrested for the murder of a political rival of his father. He passed the bar exam while on bail and later successfully argued his own appeal before the Supreme Court.

Marcos served in World War II, but was not the hero of the anti-Japanese resistance he later claimed to be—he was in fact a collaborator. Serving in the House of Representatives from 1949 to 1959 and in the Senate from 1959 to 1965, Marcos used his positions to make himself a millionaire. In 1965 he was elected president and in 1969 reelected. He maintained good relations with the United States and even sent Filipino troops to Vietnam. His main activity as president was self-enrichment (he is estimated to have amassed a personal fortune of $5 billion).

While the economy was strong and his public works program created jobs, his support remained high, but during his second term the economy slowed, and his promised land reforms never happened. Insurgent violence and crime increased, and political opposition escalated. Legally barred from running again, Marcos declared martial law in 1972 and had the constitution rewritten to allow him to stay in power. Thereafter Marcos ruled by decree, with much violence toward political opponents.

Marcos lifted martial law in 1981, and the opposition began preparations for the next election. In 1983 Marcos had the opposition leader, Senator Benigno Aquino, murdered as he returned from exile in the United States (Marcos had had him sentenced to death for "subversion" in 1977, but allowed him to leave the country). This caused an explosion of protest. A failing economy, plunging living standards, and growing popular insurgencies made the country nearly ungovernable. Marcos called an election for 1986, and Aquino's widow Corazon announced her candidacy for the presidency. Marcos officially won the vote, but the universal belief that he had rigged it brought on continuous demonstrations and strikes that brought the country to a standstill. At that point Marcos lost the support of the military and fled the country. He died in 1989 in Hawaii.

Transparency International. Much credit for heightened awareness of the damage caused by corruption should be given to an organization founded in 1994, Transparency International (TI). TI is a Berlin-based non-governmental organization (NGO) that mobilizes private sector actors in the fight against corruption. It has over ninety national chapters in both developed and developing countries. Since 1995 TI has published annually a Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI). The CPI is based on surveys that typically ask respondents to rank countries according to their level of corruption. CPI scores range from zero to ten, with zero characterizing countries whose governments are perceived to be totally corrupt, and ten for countries whose governments are perceived to be honest. The 2003 CPI reviewed 133 countries. Bangladesh ranked as the most corrupt with a score of 1.3, whereas Finland was least corrupt at 9.7.

See also: Congo, Democratic Republic of; Non-governmental Organizations; Philippines.


Aristotle. The Politics, trans. Carnes Lord. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.

Leff, Nathaniel H. "Economic Development through Bureaucratic Corruption." American Behavioral Scientist 8 (1964):291–303.

Noonan, John T., Jr. Bribes. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1984.

Nye, Joseph S. "Corruption and Political Development: A Cost-Benefit Analysis." American Political Science Review 61, no.2 (1967):417–427.

Rose-Ackerman, Susan. Corruption and Government: Causes, Consequences, and Reform. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Transparency International.<http://www.transparency.org/>.

Gabriella R. Montinola

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