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: Continue reading →
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 →