Political Bias in U.S. Anticorruption Enforcement

In my post last week, which reacted to Dani Rodrick’s discussion of the political situation in Turkey (and also to some of the commentary on recent anticorruption enforcement patterns in China), I noted the ambivalence that many people (myself included) feel about anticorruption enforcement that is simultaneously (1) legitimate (in the sense that there is evidence that the targets have indeed violated the law) and (2) politically-motivated (in the sense that the targets may have been selected not only, or not primarily, because of the alleged corruption, but also because of partisan or factional political conflict).

One thing that I should have made clearer in the post, but didn’t, is that concerns about politically-motivated anticorruption enforcement are not limited to developing countries. Indeed, there’s some fairly strong evidence of partisan political bias in anticorruption enforcement in other countries, like the United States. The strongest evidence that I know of is a terrific paper by the political scientist Sandy Gordon, which finds very strong evidence that the U.S. Department of Justice is more likely to prosecute state and local officials for various corruption offenses if those officials belong to a different political party than the one that controls the White House. (This effect was particularly strong during George W. Bush’s presidency.) Continue reading