New Working Paper on Anticorruption Reform in U.S. History

Endemic public corruption in developing and transition countries often seems intractable. Yet most countries that are currently perceived as having relatively high levels of public integrity–places like Sweden, Denmark, the United Kingdom, and the United States–were, at an earlier point in their history, afflicted with pervasive corruption similar to what one finds throughout the developing world today. Considering the history these countries may therefore make a valuable contribution to modern debates about anticorruption reform—not so much by providing simple lessons about what policies to adopt, but by offering a broader sense of how the complex process of anticorruption reform unfolds over time, and by calling into question certain widely-held beliefs about this process.

A couple years back, after attending a fascinating presentation by Mariano-Florentino Cuellar (a Justice of the California Supreme Court who somehow manages to continue to hold down his former day job as a professor at Stanford Law School), I became particularly interested in the history of my own country, the United States, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The challenges facing anticorruption reformers in the United States during this period bear a striking resemblance to the challenges facing reformers in modern-day democracies in the developing world. Indeed, the United States is a particularly interesting case study because, in contrast to most of the other Western democracies that are currently perceived as having low corruption, the United States established political democracy well before it embarked on significant “good government” reforms.

Justice Cuellar graciously agreed to collaborate with me, and we finally have a draft paper entitled “Taming Systemic Corruption: The American Experience and its Implications for Contemporary Debates.” The draft now available on SSRN here, and is also available as part of the University of Gothenburg Quality of Government (QoG) Institute’s working paper series. Our article, which focuses principally on the period between 1865 and 1941, does not purport to reach firm conclusions about the reasons that the U.S. struggle against systemic corruption ultimately succeeded—let alone to draw facile “lessons” about “what works.” But we do find that the U.S. experience calls into question a number of commonly-held views about the struggle against corruption in modern developing countries:

  • First, although some argue that entrenched cultures of corruption are virtually impossible to dislodge, at least within a democratic framework, the U.S. experience demonstrates that it is possible for a democratic country to make a transition from a systemically corrupt political system to a system in which public corruption, though still present, is aberrational and manageable. Demonstrating that the United States made this transition, from a starting point that didn’t look much more favorable than what we see in developing countries today, serves as a partial corrective to the fatalism that sometimes infects discussions of endemic corruption in modern developing countries.
  • Second, although some commentators have argued that tackling systemic corruption requires a “big bang”—with reforms that are swift, drastic, and coordinated—the United States does not fit that template. Although there were certainly some important bursts of reform at certain periods, overall the U.S. transition away from endemic corruption would be better characterized as incremental, uneven, and slow.
  • Third, although some have argued that fighting corruption requires shrinking the state, in the United States the reduction in systemic corruption, especially in the first half of the twentieth century, coincided with a substantial expansion of government size and power. These parallel trends at least call into question the simple story that the key to cutting corruption is cutting government or imposing rigid limits on bureaucratic discretion.
  • Fourth, some commentators have argued that “direct” anticorruption measures (those that emphasize monitoring and punishment of individual wrongdoers) do not do much good in societies where corruption is pervasive, and that reformers should focus exclusively on institutional reforms that make corruption harder to sustain, but that are not explicitly about corruption as such. On this point, the lessons from U.S. history are more nuanced. Institutional reforms played a key role in the U.S. fight against corruption. But investigations and prosecutions of corrupt actors were also crucial, not only because of the deterrence and incapacitation effects of such measures, but because these enforcement efforts contributed to the credible signal of a broader shift in political and social norms. And broader institutional reforms were often explicitly promoted as specifically about reducing corruption. On the whole, the U.S. experience involved a combination of “direct strategies,” such as aggressive law enforcement, and “indirect strategies,” such as civil service reform and other institutional changes.

While we are happy to finally be able to share a working paper version of our piece, it is still very much a work in progress, and we would welcome comments, suggestions, and criticisms. We’re also very interested in whether other readers out there have thoughts on what modern anticorruption reformers might be able to learn from looking further back into the historical experience of Western countries.

2 thoughts on “New Working Paper on Anticorruption Reform in U.S. History

  1. Since long time I have been taking anti-corruption works as the process of cleaning our houses. If we just follow the practice that we do when we clean our houses, I suppose anti-corruption works. The starting point for house cleaning is: Where the smell or the rot is coming from – kitchen or toilet? Many countries fail their anti-corruption program because they could not or do not want to reveal the rotting points or the starting points for anti-corruption campaigns. When we clean the glass panes in the windows and doors, the cleaners advice us to do it in humid morning time. If a science is involved in a simple process of cleaning windows then there must be bigger knowledge when it comes to cleaning the country. We often clean our houses when we expect guests visiting us; during such events we often limit to cleaning our dressing rooms that are visible and leave behind backyards (remember developing countries doing window dressing when donors visit them?). Keeping our houses neat and clean is also about habit, our culture and availability of time, efforts and priority needs. Also remember when we clean our staircases we start from the top – definitely, not from the bottom. What I see is an analogy between anti-corruption and house cleaning.

  2. I wonder to what extent the US only appears to have relatively low levels of corruption because we have legalized behaviors that may otherwise be deemed corrupt. Current campaign finance laws ensure that the interests of wealthy industries will be protected, while retiring or ousted politicians often go on to take lucrative positions at law firms, think tanks, and lobbying shops. Thus, money still heavily influences (dictates?) policy without having to buy off politicians, and politicians don’t need bribes to get rich. The cycle then becomes that money buys power for politicians in the form of reelection, and powerful politicians then make more money through their political connections after leaving office. Why take a bribe and risk losing everything when the system already works in your favor?

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