Why Anti-Corruption Policies Fail

I think that the editors of Issues & Insights are right in their explanation of why Elizabeth Warren’s plan to reduce corruption in Washington will fail as the plans and promises of every president of the last 30 years have done:

Whatever the merits of Warren’s specific anti-corruption proposals, the simple truth is that the rest of her agenda would have the exact opposite effect.

The problem with all these “anti-corruption” efforts is that they are trying to treat the symptom, not the disease.

And, in this case, the disease is Big Government. Put simply, the larger and more unencumbered the federal government is, the more it will feed the lobbyist industry and the political corruption that Warren says she wants to root out.

And, boy, does Warren want Big Government. Her agenda — Green New Deal, Medicare for All, free college, a vast increase in the regulatory state — would more than double the size of government.

The connection between the size of government and corruption isn’t just idle speculation.

Writing in the Global Anticorruption Blog, Harvard law professor Matthew Stephenson says several studies have found a clear correlation in the U.S. between the size of state governments and corruption.

“Within the U.S., when controlling for a number of other economic and demographic factors, states with larger public sectors seem to have higher corruption,” he writes.

A 1998 study, for example, shows “government size, in particular, spending by state governments, does indeed have a strong positive influence on corruption.”

A 2012 study, titled “Live Free or Bribe,” looked at the number of government officials convicted in a state for crimes related to corruption and found that the more economic freedom there was in the state, the less corruption resulted.

“Economic freedom,” the study found, “has a negative impact on corruption.”

What this means is that Warren’s plan — which would result in a drastic expansion in government and an equally sharp reduction of economic freedom — would produce a steep increase in corruption.

but they’re not pointing their finger in precisely the right direction. The reason that all of these anti-corruption plans fail is human nature. People follow their incentives.

However, other than a few lonely anarchists very few people want to end Big Government. They want a military capable of defending the country and to be able to trust the wholesomeness and utility of their food and pharmaceuticals for old people to be able to get health care regardless of their resources and all of the other thousands of things that government provides. When you add them all up it means Big Government.

I don’t believe that means that we are doomed to an ever-deepening slough of corruption. It means that eternal vigilance, etc. It means we need to guarantee that the rules are followed. It means that we cannot just wind up an EPA or an SEC and expect them to perform their intended functions without giving them clearly defined duties and ensuring that they color within the lines. It means that we can’t just trust that officials including elected officials are doing their jobs. That’s hard work and few people want to do it.

It means that government should be limited to its enumerated powers and severely punished when it strays. It will always be in continuing approximation.

Sadly, I don’t think we can root out the present corruption in government amicably.

6 comments… add one
  • steve Link

    Count me just a bit skeptical about the direct correlation between size and corruption. Some of those small African countries with small governments (no state run health for them) are totally corrupt. You have to bribe everyone. Sure, the crooks go where the money is, so in larger states they will be lobbying to get a share of the larger pie.

    “Sadly, I don’t think we can root out the present corruption in government amicably.”

    This is key. Any accusations of corruption will be viewed as partisan. Parties dont turn in members on their own side. All you get is the extreme reactions of calling for immediate indictments or refusing to look at even easily obtained matters of public record.


  • Count me just a bit skeptical about the direct correlation between size and corruption.

    Culture matters and different countries have different cultures. I am prepared to believe that some states have cultures of corruption (Illinois, Louisiana) while others don’t (Minnesota?) but size and distance mean less oversight. The very complexity of a very large organization makes it hard to oversee.

  • This report (Word) from the University of Illinois Chicago, which I believe I have linked to before shows a pretty close correlation between size and corruption measured by convictions in corruption cases in federal court (raw number or number per 10K population).

    The District of Columbia is the worst by far because of the presence of the federal government. Among states the worst state in absolute numbers of cases is Illinois; in cases per 10K population it’s Louisiana. Others in the top 13 include New York, California, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. The worst city for corruption is, of course, Chicago, closely followed by New York and Los Angeles.

    I am a square shooter in my dealings with others. I do not think I benefit from corruption. Not everyone may agree.

  • Grey Shambler Link

    That’s why we need an international anti-corruption task force, headed by the United Nations, funded by the United States, with unlimited funding. Oh yeah, AND the wall.

  • steve Link

    My first thought was that I told you New Jersey should be on the list. My second is that I am not sure that convictions are necessarily the best metric. The wealthy corrupt almost always walk away free as we know, and I think that when the corruption is bad enough not many even get prosecuted.


  • The wealthy corrupt almost always walk away free as we know,

    Reducing public corruption will be likely to reduce private corruption right along with it. And I think that acceptance of corruption leads to more corruption. Incentives again.

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