About Alexander Poulsen

Alex is a PhD candidate at the Boston College economics department who does research at the intersection of economic development and political economics. His research focuses on using cutting-edge econometric methods to understand the causes and consequences of corruption, with particular focus on Brazil.

Making Political Parties Liable for Corruption

When corrupt politicians are caught and convicted, they may suffer a variety of penalties, including fines and incarceration, and the government might also seize assets that were the proceeds of the wrongdoing. But punishing the individual politicians is not enough to deter wrongdoing or to compensate for the harm that the corruption causes. Moreover, even when an individual politician was the only actor who deliberately and intentionally engaged in corrupt criminal activity, that individual politician is not the only one at fault. Politicians’ decisions are affected by norms within a political party— for example, by expectations (sometimes unstated) that politicians will bring in a certain amount of money for campaign funds through graft.

For these reasons, political parties— in addition to the individual politicians— should be held liable for corrupt acts committed by their members in the course of their political activities or official duties. And such liability should attach even if the political parties’ leaders did not specifically know about or overtly endorse the corrupt acts in question.

This may seem like a radical suggestion, but in fact there are many contexts in which the law imposes so-called “vicarious liability” on organizations for acts committed by the organization’s members or agents. For example, the legal doctrine of respondeat superior (Latin for “let the master answer”) says that an employer (or other principal) can be held accountable for the wrongful actions of an employee (or agent), if the wrongful actions were within the normal “scope of employment.” Common examples include suing a hospital for the malpractice of one of its physicians or holding the government financially liable for wrongful conduct by law enforcement officers. (Although respondeat superior derives from English common law, other legal systems, such as those of Brazil and France have broadly similar concepts of vicarious liability.) Similarly, under the law of many jurisdictions, a corporation may be held liable (not only civilly, but also criminally) for acts committed by corporate employees—even if corporate management did not condone or even know about the criminal acts. These vicarious liability doctrines are important because a single employee frequently does not have the resources to redress the wrongs committed, and also because the employer often bears some responsibility for whatever the employee did, due to company culture, training, and incentive schemes. Because of this, economists point out that vicarious liability can be more socially efficient: The organization may be in a better position to detect and prevent wrongful conduct, so placing the liability on the organization can give it the appropriate incentives to take cost-justified measures to prevent the wrongful activity from occurring in the first place.

Although vicarious liability is a well-established legal principle, often used to hold employers responsible for the conduct of their employees, that concept has not yet been extended to hold political parties, as organizations, legally responsible for the corrupt acts of their members. Such an extension may seem radical, and in a sense it is, but it would be justified.

To make this case, I’ll apply the three-pronged standard that Black’s Law Dictionary lays out for respondeat superior liability to be appropriate in the employment context: (1) The individual was an employee when the occurred; (2) The employee was acting within the scope of his or her employment; and (3) The activities of the employee were a benefit to the employer. Continue reading

Can Political Opposition Decrease Corruption? Evidence from Brazilian Municipal Governments

The idea that checks and balances in the government—such as legislative oversight of the executive branch—can reduce corruption is intuitive, but quantitative empirical evidence for or against this hypothesis is relatively scant. Moreover, the effect of a separation of powers on the extent of corruption may depend on whether the same political party or faction controls both branches of government, or whether different factions control the legislature and the executive. Indeed, some legal scholars have argued that the true separation of powers is not between branches of government, but rather the political parties in the government, and that the traditional view of the separation of powers—ambition counteracting ambition—only works if different branches are controlled by different political parties. But the likely effect of such partisan separation on corruption is not entirely clear: If the legislature is controlled by a party or coalition opposed to the party that controls the executive branch, this could mean increased legislative oversight and lower corruption, but alternatively, increased opposition may simply drive the executive to bribe the opposition to go along with his or her agenda, leading to more corruption.

Carlos Varjão and I investigate this the question empirically in our recent working paper, “Political Opposition, Legislative Oversight, and the Performance of the Executive Branch.” We focus on municipal governments in Brazil, which are particularly suitable for this sort of study for a number of reasons: there are many municipalities with a similar overall government structure, there’s a wealth of data on various forms of corruption (mainly embezzlement, procurement fraud, and over-invoicing) from Brazil’s public audit reports, and there’s considerable variation in both the level of corruption and the political control of the branches of the municipal governments. Our findings are striking and unambiguous: increased representation of the political opposition in the local legislature is associated with more legislative oversight of the executive, less executive branch corruption, and better public service delivery. Continue reading