Political Corruption

  • Doron NavotEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-31816-5_889-1


Social Entrepreneur Business People Corruption Perception Index Collective Action Problem Political Corruption 
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The misuse of public power for private interest

Introduction: Agreements and Disagreements about Political Corruption

Corruption is an evocative and pejorative term that is used in political contexts to express rage, disappointment and usually also a call for a change. Political corruption, which refers to abuse of public power, is one of the most discussed issues all over the world since the end of the cold war. The prominence role of corruption during the year 2015 and the first months of 2016 can demonstrate this point. For example, in the United States of America, the most established democracy in the world, the candidates’ talk about corruption in American politics was one of the reasons for the popularity of the candidate for the Republican nomination for President of the United States in the 2016 election, Donald Trump, or of the candidate for the Democratic nomination for President of Berny Sanders. The leader of the Popular Party in the Madrid region resigned amid investigations of corruption within Spain’s governing party. Near to deadline of submitting this entry, Israel’s former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert went to prison for 19 months for taking bribe and obstruction of justice, becoming the first ex-premier in Israel – and probably in other contemporary democracies as well – to be imprisoned. Fifa, football’s world governing body, has been immersed by widespread corruption. In Brazil, the president was facing impeachment proceedings and many in Congress facing criminal or corruption charges on the first months of 2016, just before this entry was submitted.

Naturally, side by side with the accusations of corruption and systemic problems of misuse of public power, anti-corruption activities and policies have gained a prominent place on the global agenda and in national politics. In addition, there are also civic protests against corruption in government, whether in well-established democracies or in developing ones. Furthermore, a composite of activities carried out by governments, intergovernmental organizations, NGOs, etc., which take the form of tools, measures, campaigns and integrity programs, developed into a distinguished “anti-corruption discourse.” Some scholars have described these developments as the corruption eruption, alluding to the possibility that there is more heat than light in the way we study political corruption and attempts to reduce it. Others talk about “anti-corruption industry,” alluding to the possibility that the struggle against corruption is not as pure as its agents like people to believe and that its existence is independent or unrelated to the most important problems of misuse of public power in contemporary regimes. It might actually contribute to corruption (Sampson 2010).

While scholars underscore that there are disagreements over the most basic questions of political corruption, as a matter of fact, there is also a wide consensus about important issues. For example, today many scholars are willing to admit that anti-corruption has become an issue of its own and that too many anti-corruption “strategies” did not meet their goals or simply did not make politics and government better. Scholars also agree that corruption means a great deal more than bribery and that acts of corruption are usually symptoms of a deeper problem in the relationship between state and society. Similarly, scholars assert that there are disputes about the definition of political corruption, but at the same time, that the most common definition of political corruption is misuse of public power for private gain. More fundamentally, there is a tacit acknowledgment that misuse of public power for private gain is an important and problematic phenomenon, which deserves attention of scholars, practitioners, journalists, and ordinary citizens. Likewise, scholars are not satisfied with the measurement of political corruption, and yet, most of them would not entirely dismiss the use of perceptions indexes. Finally, there is almost a consensus today that while it is of utmost importance to combat political and reduce public corruption, there are only few success of anti-corruption endeavors.

Taking this partial consensus as a point of departure, this entry addresses several issues with regard to political corruption. The next section focuses on the question what is the function of the concept of political corruption and discusses the meaning of the term. The section that follows discusses explanations for the causes of corruption, distinguishing between public choice approach, sociological approach, and more historical-institutional approach. Next, the article looks at the consequences of corruption, while the section that follows concisely surveys methodological issues. Before concluding the article examines anti-corruption measures and attempts to curb corruption. The final part discusses new directions in the field and suggests what we can expect from anti-corruption.

The Concept of Political Corruption and Its Functions

One of the important issues in any conceptual discussion is why the discussion exists in the first place. What kinds of problems and misunderstandings are driving it? What is the purpose in reexamining a given concept, and what will a reconceptualization achieve? These basic questions are neglected from the field, but they are important if any progress is to be made about questions such as what is the nature of political corruption and what is its definition.

The term corruption has strong negative connotations, and the notion of political corruption revolves around the misuse of public power. By definition, political corruption takes place within the public sphere or at the interface between the public and private spheres, by agents with power (Heywood 1997). Most scholars will add the notion of private or personal interest and conceive of political corruption as the misuse of entrusted power for private interest (Andersson and Heywood 2009; Philp 2015).

Generally speaking, the conceptualization of corruption is an attempt to clarify what distinguishes between the use and misuse of public power, and what kinds of goals are to be considered private. The issues that raise the most complicated and acute questions were those that relate to pervasive abuses of power and of systemic attempts by politicians to gain or preserve public power by misusing their public office. This is because political interactions necessarily involves exchanges: efforts to influence behavior by promising some kind of electoral support (money for campaigns, organization, voting, etc.) in return for governmental service, a policy, legislation, etc.

While illegality was central to definitions of political corruption in the past, and some scholars still prefer to refer legal norms, there is no justification to confine political corruption for illegal actions, and such an approach would be too conservative. Simply put, politicians determine what is legal and what is not, and confining the definition to illegality means that the definition is subordinated to the will and the interests of politicians. That would not allow to include situations and practices that the political elite want to legitimize and have the power to do so, even if they are harmful. Inasmuch as the meaning of corruption has narrowed to illegal behavior and quid pro quo that narrowing has provided not only partial content but it also provided biased content.

In addition to these general concerns, there are more specific reasons to discuss the meaning of political corruption in contemporary democracies and in the developing world. First, over recent years the term corruption has seen intensive use in the public discourse. It is important to understand this discursive phenomenon, if political life is not to become intolerable and overly rigid. Similarly, scholars must critically examine the notion of corruption as part of a larger attempt to develop sensitivity to the circumstances of politics and in order to develop a political language that is normative but not moralistic (Philp 2015).

Second, the conceptualization of corruption is driven by juridical concerns, especially in countries where the legislature or the Court have held that limits on issues like campaign contributions, lobbying, and other democratic practices are justified by the government’s interest in preventing corruption and the appearance of corruption. Third and finally, the conceptual work is required because of the dramatic increase in the power of the business community and the amount of money spent on electoral campaigns over the last four decades in many countries, and the concomitant massive increase in the power of economic elites.

In the end, any conceptualization of political corruption in liberal democracies and even in developing countries that are less than democratic must meet three challenges. First, the conceptualization should improve political judgment by helping develop sensitivity to problematic power relations. Second, it should provide guidelines for public behavior, offer prescriptions for institutional reform if necessary, and help identify agents of change – whether they are in the government or outside of it. Third, the conceptualization should retain core elements of the general concept of corruption.

The Causes of Political Corruption

One of the features of the literature on corruption in the last century has been the attempt to explain corruption in rational terms in a field that, until the end of the nineteenth century, was dominated by moralists and moral explanations. More specifically, from the early days of modern political science there is a sincere attempt to explain why even decent people may be engages in corrupt practices, and how macro factors like industrialization, urbanization, and immigration are related to the development of massive graft, bribery, and party machine in developed democracies. That is not to say that the literature tolerates corruption or that it exonerate individuals. Rather, it means that the root cause of corruption often goes beyond few rotten apples. The problem is often in the box of apples itself, and if we want to explain why a certain person was engaged in abuse of power, we better take a look also in other factors that go beyond personal failures, bad character of agents, and wickedness of the heart (Navot 2014).

One of the questions that the literature deals with intensively is why some countries are more prone than others to political corruption (Heywood 1997; Persson et al. 2013). There is strong evident that lower perceived corruption correlates closely with higher economic development (Treisman 2007) or that liberal and democratic regimes suffer less from flagrant abuses of power such as extortion, quid pro quad bribery, and nepotism (Johnston 2014). The literature also tells that trust is both cause and effect of corruption. But naturally for the material, what exactly causes corruption, or what are the mechanisms that connect between economic and political factors and political corruption, are disputable issues.

One prominence explanation of corruption adopts economic perspective. Scholars who adopted it tend to use the principal-agent model in order to explain when corruption is more likely to occur. Corruption is modeled as illegal behavior of agents that are motivated by desire to reelect (in the case of politicians), budgets (in the case of bureaucrats), or greed (in the case of both politicians and bureaucrats), entrusted to act on the behalf of principal – the public.

The fundamental cause for corruption on the macrolevel according to this approach is governmental intervention in the economy (Acemoglu and Verdier 2000). More specifically, it is the regulatory functions of the state, rather than the productive or redistributive functions that is associated with corruption (Holcombe and Boudreaux 2015). That way or another, the economic approach believes that what cause political corruption at the individual or microlevel is the fact that it is more rational to deviate from a rule for private gain. Likewise, this approach suggests that the regular democratic tools – elections, free press, transparency, etc. – are usually deficient against collusions between interest groups, greedy politicians, and ambitious bureaucrats. The extent of corruption in this model hinges on four factors: (1) the value of the state service for a citizen; (2) the value of the corrupt offer that the citizen provide for the decision maker, as a function of the citizen’s economic capacities and interests; (3) the probability of being detected when engaging in corrupt interaction, as a function of the enforcement system; and finally (4) the punishment that the system would impose on the corrupt agents if they be detected (Banfield 1975; Rose-Ackerman 1978).

Some scholars that developed this approach assume that elected politicians and bureaucrats are the root cause of corruption. Therefore, they recommend on less government. That is, privatization, deregulation, and shirking the state can reduce corruption dramatically (Becker 1998). However, other scholars who adopted the economic perspective have less faith in the market, and they believe that the state should play a major role also in economic life. They do not support shirking the state or measures such as deregulation and privatization. Rather, according to the economic approach, the best way to cure political corruption is by changing incentives of agents – whether by increasing transparency and control or by increasing the punishment – and enhancing their ethics (Rose-Ackerman 1978).

In contrast to the economic approach, the cultural-sociological approach stresses the degree to which corrupt behavior such as paying money for public service or appointing relatives for public office is bounded by native norms, local distinctions between public and private, and shared interpretations of right and wrong in politics. From this perspective, societies encourage agents to act in ways that are honest or corrupt. The Israeli bureaucrat who receives a gift after providing a complicated service, the American politician who receives a big donation and does favors for his donors, or the French mayor who receives envelopes with cash money routinely are deeply embedded in a domain composed of habits, conventions, and norms which provide schemes of interpretations, of both what is the agent’s motivations, what is right and wrong, and what he is allowed to do. Not only do societies provide information about the expectations from the agents, they also affect their desires, motivations, and preferences.

Scholars who adopt the sociological-cultural approach usually define private interests much more broadly than financial gain. Such a definition problematizes the distinction between private and public interest and shows that the boundaries between political corruption and mundane politics is dynamic and complicated. In addition, sociologists, anthropologists, and scholars who adopt this approach tend to underscore how the interpretations of agents are different from the outside observer. Thus, many scholars are reluctant to blame agents for being engage in political corruption. Finally, this perspective is sensitive to the anti-corruption discourse and how it contributes to the construction of the meaning of political corruption. It does not mean that anthropologists and sociologists are relativists or tolerant to abuse of power for private gain. However, they emphasize that observers from the outside, and what an agent will see as legitimate behavior or a corrupt one, is to a large extent itself socially constituted.

The historical-institutional perspective to political corruption combines insights from the economic and sociological-cultural approaches. While it does not provide precise answers to the question what motivates an agent to engage in corruption or what makes a country more prone to corruption than other one, this approach still offers an important and unique view on the subject. The uniqueness lies in sensitivity to power relations and conflicts among groups and in giving more room to ideas and agency in explaining why political corruption occurs. According to this approach, corruption takes place when the benefits related to being corrupt are often considerably greater than the costs. This is similar to the economic approach; however, and in differing with the latter, the historical-institutional perspective stresses that there are discrepancies across groups. The higher a group in the hierarchy, the more likely it is that it would benefit from engaging in corruption (Persson et al. 2013, 460–461).

This perspective is also distinguishable in the role it ascribes to the state. The state and the bureaucratic apparatuses are not only causes of political corruption but also a cure for it. From this perspective, systemic corruption is deeply rooted in a state’s underlying social and historical-political structure, and historical conditions ranging from institutions to natural resources can have long-term effects on political corruption (Uslaner and Rothstein 2016).

For scholars who adopted this approach, a major question is how corruption became entrenched, endemic, and pervasive, that is, the acceptable way of governing. A related insight in this literature is that it is not enough to explain that corruption is not in the interest of politicians, bureaucrats, and the people but also to solve coordination problem or collective action problems (Warner 2007; Rothstein 2011). Basically, the answer for such a question in this approach is a combination of history and institutions, a strong focus on the development of institutions of the state, and patterns of participation (Johnston 2014). For example, one study shows that the employment terms of public employees and the extent to which they are dependent on politicians are essential for understanding why some states suffer from systemic corruption (Dahlström et al. 2012).

The Consequences of Political Corruption

One of the insights of the literature in the past three decades is that political corruption combines many types and practices, and thus, there are many consequences for corrupt acts (Johnston 2014). Likewise, context matters. While under specific consequences, certain corrupt acts may be beneficial for the common good – it may be more beneficial to pay a bribe for a lazy or a corrupt politician that would not advance a project that increases welfare otherwise – in general, it is obvious that corruption is not only immoral, and that corrupt acts are wrongful (and often blameworthy as well), but also that corruption is a harmful phenomenon. As a matter of fact, even philosophers and scholars that pointed out that corruption may be the lesser evil (from David Hume, through Alexander Hamilton to Walter Lippmann, Robert K. Merton and Samuel Huntington in the twentieth century) did not doubt that it is better to act in decent and honest way. Simply put, the question is not whether corruption is good or bad, but rather, whether it is possible to reduce corruption without causing more harm than good (Johnston 2014).

That way or another, as long as political corruption is discussed in general terms, the consequences of it can be enormous and deadly. There is plenty of evidence that corrupt rulers cause a lot of suffering for their people and that corrupt institutions and bureaucracies are one of the major reasons that poor countries are poor. It means that corruption causes death, hunger, waste of resources, and other human suffering (Rothstein 2011). High levels of corruption and exposure to corruption are a major problem for development worldwide, creating slower economic growth as well as poor social consequences. It breeds mistrust among people, mistrust in politics and government, and reduces trust (Seligson 2002). On the other hand, in countries with low corruption there is more human well-being than corrupt ones.

The consequences of corruption are far reaching even in developed democracies. Simply put, misuse of public for private gain also corrupt democratic processes and exclude people. It increases political inequality and make democracy mainly a façade (Warren 2004). Corruption in democracies breeds mistrust in government, causes anger, and discourages people to take part in the political process (Thompson 1995). More fundamentally, when institutions are systematically dependent on forces that are not the people, such as big donors or the business class, the government does not serve the people (Issacharoff 2010; Lessig 2011). This is massive problem on its own, and it can lead the desire for “strong leaders” who are “not corrupt” even if they breed racism, hatred, and illiberal ethos.

Methodological Issues

Assuming that the conceptual challenge was solved and the definition of corruption is agreed upon, one of the problems with the study of corruption is the ability to measure misuse of public power, especially if it is delimited for misuse of public power for private gain. Corruption entails illegitimate activities, which participants want to hide. The clandestine nature of corruption makes it difficult to detect. Often corruption does not leave tracks – unlike murder there is no dead body or a missing person that someone is looking for – and at times it is not even clear whether or not corruption exists. Similarly, it is hard to tell what motivate agents to act the way they do. It is hard to judge whether the power holder has found the balance between different kinds of considerations in making decisions. The problem is not merely epistemological, one that could be overcome if the observer could only see more deeply into the minds of politicians and bureaucrats. The difficulty is built into the nature of politics – the nature of acting in the public sphere, whether in democracies (Thompson 1995) or other regimes. That means that is it often impossible to measure corruption directly.

The main response to this difficult in the last quarter century has been to rely on the perceptions, evaluations, and assessments of experts and ordinary citizens. That is, corruption measures are often based on the willingness of respondents either to share information about their own experience or their observations about corruption. The most prominent measure is Corruption Perception Index (CPI) constructed by Transparency International (Andersson and Heywood 2009), which make use of cross-national business people, experts and analysts’ perception indices to rank countries, and aggregate information from a number of sources that include country risk ratings produced by business consultancies, surveys of international or domestic business people, and polls of country inhabitants. The CPI seeks to measure the overall extent of corruption in the public or political sectors. Another method was inspired by crime-victimization surveys. Corruption is measured by asking respondent about direct personal experience with it and questions recording their experience with corruption immediately prior to the survey. TI’s Global Corruption Report and the Bribe Payers’ Index are a case in point (Seligson 2006). The latter is not based on perceptions but rather on respondent’s willingness to share information about their experience with the public sector.

In a sample of European states, the perceptions of how much one’s public sector is corrupt were highly consistent when comparing samples of those who have and those who have not recently experienced public-sector corruption. Perceptions of citizens in Europe are highly correlated with expert perceptions. Simply put, a consistency of corruption perceptions between experts and citizens, as well as actual reported citizen experiences was found, and there is external validity for citizen-based perception measures (Charonn 2016).

However, whether the measure is based on experts or on ordinary citizens is also suffers from shortcomings. First, it is doubtful to what extent such perceptions and experience surveys measure misuse of power for private gain, and not other issues – such as disappointment from government, neoliberal, or anti-political sentiments. Although the surveys often ask a panel of experts to rank corruption on a scale of low to high, it is not known whether the experts share a common assessment of what constitutes any particular location on such a scale. Indeed, there is a high degree of correlation between the various indices, but that is partly because the surveys ask similar questions to people in similar positions (business people), and many of them are focused on bribery (Andersson and Heywood 2009). The second problem is that ordinary people, businessmen, and most if not all the analysts are not exposed to grand corruption, which is of great importance for the study of political corruption.

Ironically, the limitations of corruption perceptions indexes might be more crucial in indexes that are based on business people and analysts. First, the latter usually have less experience with every day corruption, or petit corruption, with compare to ordinary people. Business men usually have experience only in specific segments of the government – according to their occupation and contacts. Second, business people usually have different world views from ordinary people, and this is especially true when it comes to very rich people. To conclude, TI has contributed to a significant research on corruption but also to the development of anti-corruption measures, which is the topic of the next section.

Corruption, Anti-corruption, and Anti-anti-corruption

Struggling against corruption has emerged as a priority in many countries, and since the end of the 1980s, there is a tendency to adopt measures that are declared to be against corruption. These measures include declarations or statements about the need to curb corruption, signing of agreements and conventions, and efforts to enforce these commitments/agreements by governmental and nongovernmental actors that are specialized in this field (Sampson 2010).

One of the insights of the literature, which is supported also by empirical research, is that democracy reduces corruption. A recent research discovered that the effect is considerably larger than suggested in the literature. Democracy, then, is important in combating corruption which means that democratization should be part of strategies to reduce corruption (Kolstad and Wiig 2015).

However, after a quarter-century long reform efforts to reduce political corruption, there is almost a consensus that anti-corruption activities that had been funded by international organizations are more often than not ineffective. Even in developed countries, there are anti-corruption rules that are not enforced, and many institutions do not have sufficient resources and discretion to enforce them. It is rare to find genuine will among power holders to eliminate corruption, and as a result, the declared intentions are not actualized. Scholars assert that the problem goes deeper than lack of will. According to them, most of the anti-corruption measures are based on misguided assumptions and on improper action items (Johnston 2014; Persson et al. 2013). Others conceive anti-corruption as apolitical and neoliberal-inspired solutions, which are part and parcel of political repression and abuse. At least in Tunisia, anti-corruption global discourse is a way to put forward neoliberal rationality, and it has been biased in favor of the needs of foreign investors (Baumann 2016).

Indeed, anti-corruption strategies may have many limitations, and they usually do not make government and politics free from misuse of public power. But at least in certain countries, they also make a positive difference. Thanks to the anti-corruption discourse; decisions makers; transnational corporations; business communities; lobbyists; courts and candidates act against quid pro quo, bribe-taking, and extortion; and flagrant abuses of power are probably less common. That is, while anti-corruption programs are at times consistent with the interests of bureaucracies and the private sector, they are also beneficial for the majority of the people. Simply put, the “anti-anti-corruption” sentiment, which seems to become fashionable in the last decade among political theorists, is much more problematic than anti-corruption per se.

Similarly, a closer look at responses to corruption shows that they have not simply been shaped by the anti-corruption global discourse or “anti-corruption industry.” Rather they have been shaped by social entrepreneurs and the capacities and resources of local agents (Navot and Cohen 2015). Put differently, the global anti-corruption industry offered activists a tool they could use to put forward and legitimize their own concerns about political corruption (Walton 2016). So, while there are good reasons to be skeptical about anti-corruption measures that overlooks social forces and political institutions, it is no less important to not to overestimate the power of the global discourse.

Against this background, one of the lessons from the failed anti-corruption strategies that were adopted in the 1990s is not to conceptualize systemic corruption as a principal–agent problem, but rather to conceive it primarily as a collective action problem. Based on the case of Sweden who made a dramatic improvement during the nineteenth century, scholars who are interested in reducing entrenched and systemic corruption stress the importance of three factors: improvements in the legal system; recognition of the problem by the main political actors; and liberal ideology (Rothstein and Teorell 2015).


Over the past quarter century, political corruption has become an important issue and a central research topic in the social sciences. After a period in which political corruption was confined to illegal behavior and the focus was on the question of why individuals decide to engage in corrupt behavior, the emphasis of recent works have shifted to the analysis curbing systemic and entrenched corruption.

Supporters of anti-corruption activities and policies have tried to recruit influential players to reduce political corruption. They have been especially keen to attract people identified with an ideology that supports values such as transparency, integrity, responsibility, and accountability. Nevertheless, the experience and empirical research over the last two decades reveal that transparency and administrative measures are not sufficient to fight corruption, especially given the high costs associated with such efforts. In order to establish an environment of value-based public policy, it may be necessary to combine it with an understanding of the needs and motivations of potential anti-corruption agents and to adopt a more political approach – an approach that takes power and social relation much more seriously. Why there are no agents aimed at reducing corruption in some areas, while in other areas such efforts are successful? This question can be resolved by the realization that political intervention is conditioned by cost–benefit calculations and power relations. Thus, when agents decide to take action against political corruption, they must believe that it has a good chance of success and that the benefits outweigh the risks and costs or they must be desperate to such an extent that they would act against corruption even if the chances to succeed seem to be very low.

The historical institutional literature, which is more political in nature, has the potential to accommodate and improve accounts of political corruption based on principal-agent model, economic, and legalistic approaches. First, it suggests how fundamental change might take place, without becoming too naïve about such a possibility or glossing over the problematic of such a change. Second, it has the potential to leave room for the role of agency in curbing political corruption, thus amending abstract views about coalitions, interests, and civil society. Third, the literature corrects the wrong view as if the market is the solution to political corruption. Shifting attention from incentives to agents and social relations may offer a new lens through which scholars can examine the behavior of both politicians and the very wealthy few, including corporations. With such an approach, which is more classical in nature, scholars and citizens can identify those who are willing to risk their political careers and call out those who cowardly refuse to do so. Another change that it might be time to adopt is to distance the concept of political corruption from the question of what should be done to combat it. Corruption ought to be exposed, at minimum, because it violates human dignity. Ultimately, the aim is to trigger public discourse that may lead individual agents to rethink their engagement in a corrupt practice or to start a process that will end in an enforceable policy against it. However, to avoid the language of corruption just because “the system is here to stay” is to be unfaithful to the truth and will only serve to strengthen the corrupt system.

What is needed in order to curb corruption is not only good institutions but also good politicians who are willing to confront the very wealthy few and good citizens who are willing to demand more from their representatives. One way or another, to conceive corruption in contemporary democracies through the lens of simplistic economic or institutional theory is to gloss over crucial elements, distinctions, and insights associated with the classical view of corruption. Among these elements is sensitivity to the power of the very wealthy few – the grand or economic elite – and an understanding that good politics depends not only on institutions but also on virtue, sacrifice, and proper power relations.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.The University of HaifaHaifaIsrael