Are Democracies Less Corrupt? The Answer May Surprise You

Are Democracies Less Corrupt? The Answer May Surprise You

As part of my research on international corruption in a forthcoming article in the Ohio State Law Journal, I came across some interesting studies on the relationship between corruption and democracies. One would think that democratic regimes are less corrupt than autocratic regimes because in democracies public officials are subject to political accountability. But the evidence suggests otherwise. Empirical research confirms that the relationship between corruption and democracy is nonlinear. Only countries that are fully institutionalized democracies consistently rank well on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index scores. There is no measurable improvement in corruption rankings between mixed political regimes and partial democracies. Moreover, in many cases institutionalized autocracies have better corruption scores than partial democracies.

As one study noted, “corruption is likely to be slightly lower in dictatorships than in countries that have partially democratized. But with more complete democratization … countries experience much lower levels of corruption.”

Another study found that “[h]ow well any government functions simply hinges on how good citizens are at making their politicians accountable for their actions…. [I]t is only when citizens effectively discipline policymakers to serve them that public goods are delivered in an efficient manner and corruption is curtailed.” This requires not simply free and fair elections, but also informed citizens capable of curbing corruption.

Of course, fully-fledged democracies do not spring forth overnight. Studies indicate that a “long period of period of exposure to democracy lowers corruption.” It is common for countries in transition toward democracy to experience a growing problem with corruption. But in the battle against corruption, patience is a virtue. As one study put it, the “[g]reatest rewards (in the form of a clean and transparent state) [a]re granted to countries that [a]re able not only to realize but also to maintain the strongest and healthiest democratic institutions.”

In short, lukewarm democracies are not effective at combating corruption, and often do a worse job at it than tin-pot dictators. Only when democracy has fully flowered is there a strong positive correlation between a democratic form of government and low-levels of perceived corruption. The good news is that fully-fledged, well-established democracies are the cleanest governments on earth.

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Benjamin Davis
Benjamin Davis

Full fledged democracies seem to do corruption in more sophisticated ways and for vast sums of money don’t you think?  I mean look at LIBOR, look at the bail out of the banks, look at the sweetheart deals for the work in Iraq, and on and on.  Look at how Chicago worked and the mafia control of the concrete industry.  Of course, the other thing is persons from democracies corrupting persons from less democratic or authoritarian places and vice versa.  With international flows, I suspect these things are not unidirectional.  See the HSBC scandal that broke in Congressional testimony this week. Nothing new under the sun.

Alexander Panayotov
Alexander Panayotov

  I do not want to challenge the conclusion because I suspect that it’s correct. But I urge caution. Here is why: First, corruption is a contested concept for which definitions abound; so is democracy. Second, operationalization and measurement of these two concepts is not a straightforward process. For democracies, there POLITY scores; there are similar indicators for corruption. As usual, the devil is in details and how these indicators are used determines the conclusions. Moreover, oftentimes these studies are incommensurable simply because they shy away from bold generalizations and surround themselves with ceteris paribus clauses. This is not to say that everything is lost. There are some good examples of corruption research using instrumental variables: “Cultures of Corruption: Evidence from Diplomatic Parking Tickets”, by Raymond Fisman and Edward Miguel is one of them.   Personally, I think that research on corruption is fascinating. It will be very interesting to know whether there is a relationship between the legal family (common vs. civil law) and corruption. Law and finance literature made some inroads in this direction in the late 1990s. Another interesting problem will be to explore the relationship between imperial legacies, corruption, and democracy. For example, countries that belonged… Read more »

Rhodri Williams

Interesting piece – I have been vaguely aware of a running political debate in Britain right now regarding whether democracy has become so advanced that the electorate effectively takes it for granted, not bothering to impose the type of discipline that would be needed to counteract the succession of scandals seen recently involving institutional capture and corruption. So maybe the pendulum you describe can swing a bit too far the other way too…?

Kamal Makili-Aliyev

I guess the tendency you’ve been describing is only natural due to the differences in the power management between partial democracies and institutionalized autocracies. It also brings about a question how managed is a corruption in institutionalized democracy as opposed to the partial or weak democracy. It might well be that institutionalized autocracies just a have a better grip on corruption in general, as they have on other spheres of economic and social life of respective populations.

Good luck with further studies.