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Corruption in the Wealthy World

Political Corruption
Miriam Golden

Compared with third world nations, the world's wealthy democracies have it easy. Governance, while hardly a trivial process, is usually relatively unproblematic. Public officials can anticipate what it will take to enter office and when and in what matter they are likely to depart; when holding office, they have trained civil servants to do their bidding; and when legislation is approved, there is some reasonable expectation that implementation will follow in due course. Citizens, for their part, vote, sign petitions, protest, and publicly complain but by and large do not reject the basic principles of the political system. None of this works perfectly, of course, or automatically, or without any conflict, but by and large politics and law making in the wealthy democratic world are routinized and heavily predictable. All of this takes place, moreover, without these selfsame elected officials stealing most of the country's wealth from the public treasury and secretly shipping it abroad or spending most of their time in public office conspiring with other elites to gain additional privileges and income. Rent-seeking, which is a term used to describe any additional undeserved income that politicians may gain from holding public office above and beyond their official salaries, as well as political corruption are in wealthy democracies comparatively modest compared with the extent of elite plunder that afflicts some of the world's poorest nations. However, even if it is less frequent and less politically or economically intrusive, political corruption still takes place in the world's wealthiest countries. Elected officials disobey the laws they are entrusted to enforce and they use their public offices for illegal personal gain. But should we care, and, if so, how much and why? We may find political corruption morally offensive. We may be surprised and disturbed when the press uncovers illegal dealings on the part of an elected official, and we may suspect that the problem goes deeper than what has been made public. We may worry that political corruption causes misallocations of economic resources and that it provides unfair political advantages to those who participate in corrupt activities. But does political corruption impinge on governance? Does it affect the basic operation of democratic political institutions in the world's wealthiest nations? My answer is that it does not. In stable wealthy democracies, the effects of political corruption on governance are modest at best. What corruption does occur is usually part of an attempt by an elected official to retain his office rather than an attempt to amass personal financial wealth. Perhaps as a result, voters typically reelect public officials charged with or even convicted of corruption, abuse of office, or accepting illegal kickbacks in exchange for government contracts. If the average voter appears not to mind corruption and continues to endorse democratic institutions (and even the very officials whose actions may have violated the legal order), then it is hard to argue that corruption is consequential. If most voters don't care, then why should we?