Corruption is widely believed to be a self-reinforcing phenomenon, in the sense that the incentive to engage in corrupt acts increases as corruption becomes more widespread in the relevant community. Leading scholars have argued that corruption’s self-reinforcing property implies that incremental anticorruption reforms cannot be effective, and that the only way to escape a high-corruption equilibrium “trap” is through a so-called “big bang” or “big push.” This widespread view is mistaken. After surveying the reasons corruption might be self-reinforcing (or in some cases self-limiting), this paper demonstrates that corruption’s self-reinforcing property does not imply the necessity of a “big bang” approach to reform, and indeed may strengthen the case for pursuing sustained, cumulative incremental anticorruption reforms.
I hope that some readers might find the paper to be of interest. Constructive criticism and other feedback are of course most welcome!
A little while back I attended a very interesting talk by California Supreme Court Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuellar about a paper of his, co-authored with the political scientists Margaret Levi and Barry Weingast, entitled “Conflict, Institutions, and Public Law: Reflections on Twentieth-Century America as a Developing Country.” It’s a short, provocative paper, well worth reading for a number of reasons, but what I really want to focus on here is less the substance of the paper itself than the broader theme, captured by the paper’s subtitle, that it may be valuable to think about the pre-World War II United States as not so different from modern developing countries. Most relevant for readers of this blog, it may be worth looking to U.S. history (and the history of other developed countries) to better understand the process by which endemic public corruption may be brought under control.
The Cuellar-Levi-Weingast paper itself touches on, but doesn’t really delve into, this issue. Nonetheless, it got me thinking about three features of the historical U.S. struggle against systemic corruption—a struggle that, while certainly not complete, does appear to have successfully transformed the United States from a system where corruption was the norm (with some happy exceptions) to one where integrity is the norm (with some unhappy exceptions). Importantly, each of these three observations casts doubt on prominent claims in the modern debate about fighting corruption in the developing world: Continue reading →