The Guiding Principle for Anticorruption Policy Should Be Cost-Effectiveness, Not “Zero Tolerance”

In 2015, following indications that a few Canadian Senators had been using government money for disallowed personal expenses, the Canadian government launched a major investigation that cost approximately $23 million—but led to no convictions, and exposed corruption that cost the government less than $1 million. To many, me included, this seems like overkill, even if we acknowledge that corruption is a serious problem. Yet the “zero tolerance” ethos that motivated the Canadian Senate’s investigation is widely embraced. As previous posts have pointed out, zero tolerance policies fail to account for the fact that corruption might be expensive to root out, and that the extraordinary expenditures required to reduce corruption closer to zero might not, after a certain point, be justified.

This does not mean that corruption is good. But the efficient amount for the government to invest in corruption-reduction—which in turn determines the amount of corruption that will prevail—is that for which, as an economist would put it, marginal benefit equals marginal cost. Or to put this another way, “tolerance” of some corruption is efficient (and appropriate) once the costs of achieving further reductions in corruption are greater than the costs of the corruption that would be eliminated by those additional efforts.

The right amount of corruption, therefore, is probably not zero. Existing anticorruption policies neglect this point, leading to inefficient spending like that on the Canadian Senate probe. With that understanding, how can anticorruption policy be targeted to get the biggest bang for the buck?

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