In my post last week, which reacted to Dani Rodrick’s discussion of the political situation in Turkey (and also to some of the commentary on recent anticorruption enforcement patterns in China), I noted the ambivalence that many people (myself included) feel about anticorruption enforcement that is simultaneously (1) legitimate (in the sense that there is evidence that the targets have indeed violated the law) and (2) politically-motivated (in the sense that the targets may have been selected not only, or not primarily, because of the alleged corruption, but also because of partisan or factional political conflict).
One thing that I should have made clearer in the post, but didn’t, is that concerns about politically-motivated anticorruption enforcement are not limited to developing countries. Indeed, there’s some fairly strong evidence of partisan political bias in anticorruption enforcement in other countries, like the United States. The strongest evidence that I know of is a terrific paper by the political scientist Sandy Gordon, which finds very strong evidence that the U.S. Department of Justice is more likely to prosecute state and local officials for various corruption offenses if those officials belong to a different political party than the one that controls the White House. (This effect was particularly strong during George W. Bush’s presidency.)Now, to be clear, I’m not arguing that President Bush, or any other President, used anticorruption laws to engage in a purge of political opponents. There’s a big difference between (1) the possibility of some bias at the margins (a willingness to pursue legitimate but minor cases against political opponents, while tending to give co-partisans a pass in similar circumstances), and (2) the deliberate asymmetric use/abuse of anticorruption laws to damage the political opposition. Likewise, I’m not suggesting bad faith on the part of U.S. prosecutors; there’s plenty of evidence that bias can be subconscious. But all that said, the work of Gordon and others is a useful reminder that anticorruption enforcement in wealthy Western democracies is not an entirely pristine exercise, untainted by political bias.
Perhaps this is also a usual occasion to note the difficulty in figuring out how much anticorruption enforcers should be politically insulated. On the one hand, a politically independent enforcement agency can resist pressure by powerful incumbent politicians either to lay off the incumbents’ allies or to go after their adversaries. On the other hand, independent enforcement agents may have their own agendas, and their own political biases, and we might reasonably worry that without adequate accountability, these entities could abuse their authority (intentionally or unintentionally). I’m not sure we’ve quite worked out how to manage the trade-off between independence and accountability in the anticorruption context.