Menus Subscribe Search

Corruption Leads to More Corruption

• June 06, 2010 • 5:00 AM

A legacy of corruption leads the citizenry more toward resignation and connivance than to activism, a new study looking at Mexico reports.

Once upon a time, there was a monarchy. Like many governments, it required a number of people — dukes, knights, lords, etc. — to function. These people were chosen based on their proximity or loyalty to the royal family, which was itself royal because it had more money and land than other families. The members of the court were rewarded for their service to the royal family, and they drew their power from having more money and power than everyone else.

Back in the days of monarchies, government officials who were in with the king (and/or queen) were, to a large extent, allowed to do whatever they wanted, provided they didn’t jeopardize their positions with the wrong affairs or conspiracy plots. If those government officials were corrupt — and corruption was pretty much inherent to the system, or if you will, was the system — the only way for anyone to get rid of them, really, was to kill them.

Democracy supposedly changed all that. It allowed people to choose who got power, and, theoretically, get rid of them if they misused it.

So why are so many democratic nations unable to overcome a legacy of corruption?

A new study by Stephen D. Morris and Joseph L. Klesner offers one explanation. The researchers find that corruption leads to — you guessed it — more corruption.

Why? Because it breeds a climate of mistrust. People who don’t trust their governments are less likely to participate politically to fix them. Instead of getting fed up, you get wise.

Morris and Klesner arrived at this conclusion using the case study of Mexico, a country known for corrupt government officials at all levels.

Corruption was pervasive under the rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which held power in the country under various names for more than 70 years in a kind of sham democracy that started to crumble in 1988.

Under the Institutional Revolutionary Party, scandals implicated people close to both presidents Jose Lopez Portillo and Carlos Salinas de Gortari, and bribes sustained many law enforcement officers and public officials. However, the party lost the presidency in 2000 with the election of Vicente Fox of the National Action Party; the country now has a multiparty, democratic government.

When politicians run on an anti-corruption platform and win, it would make sense for voters to expect them to actually fight the practice (and not participate in it). After all, they wouldn’t have gotten elected if people anticipated more of the same, right?

Wrong. It turns out that even when leaders who promise to eradicate corruption are democratically elected, citizens don’t actually expect anything to change.

As recently as 2009, Mexico was ranked 89th on the Transparency International Perception of Corruption Index, behind China (79th), Colombia (75th) and Cuba (61st). The U.S. took 19th, following the U.K. and Japan, tied at 17th; New Zealand was at the top of the list, Somalia at the bottom.

It doesn’t look like democracy has done much to give the Mexican people faith in their government.

Morris and Klesner started with two main hypotheses: Corruption will strongly determine levels of interpersonal trust, and corruption will strongly determine levels of confidence in public institutions. They also hypothesized that the opposite would be true; interpersonal trust and confidence in public institutions would determine corruption.

To test their predictions, they used data from the Latin American Public Opinion Project, which included interviews with 1,556 Mexicans age 18 and over from March 2004.

The researchers measured corruption based on whether participants thought various public officials were corrupt or had themselves participated in corruption by paying, soliciting or witnessing payment of bribes to public officials.

They found that while corruption does not affect whether people trust each other, it does affect their faith in institutions. And when people perceived their governments as corrupt, they themselves were more likely to participate in the corruption (likely as a result of an “everyone-else-is-doing-it” attitude).

“Mexicans who distrust political institutions are likely to believe that politicians, public figures and those involved in law enforcement and the judicial system are corrupt,” the researchers wrote. “Mexicans who see corruption among politicians, public figures, judges and the police are likely to distrust all political institutions.”

In other words, it’s not necessarily surprising that people who see their entire political system as corrupt are less than optimistic that a legitimate alternative exists.

And, as the researchers point out, “If politicians are considered to be corrupt, then their rhetorical promises to crack down on corruption will tend to fall on deaf ears.”

They argue that in Latin America specifically, anti-corruption campaigns have their work cut out for them because they are trying to mobilize and incorporate an already distrusting population.

“If people expect politicians to be corrupt and therefore unlikely to do the right thing, anticorruption efforts have to disrupt that cycle,” Morris and Klesner write. “In Mexico, people blame politicians and see no way out, but at the same time they use this view to justify their own participation in corruption and unwillingness to do anything about it.”

Elisabeth Best
Former Miller-McCune Fellow Elisabeth Best is currently pursuing a Masters of Pacific International Affairs at the University of California, San Diego School of International Relations and Pacific Studies, where she is the editor in chief of the Journal of International Policy Solutions. She graduated from UC Santa Barbara in June 2009 with a BA in global studies and a minor in professional editing. As an undergraduate, she wrote for The GW Hatchet and Coastlines magazine and hosted “The Backseat” on WRGW.

More From Elisabeth Best

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

July 31 • 4:00 PM

Thank You for Your Service: How One Company Sues Soldiers Worldwide

With stores near military bases across the country, the retailer USA Discounters offers easy credit to service members. But when those loans go bad, the company uses the local courts near its Virginia headquarters to file suits by the thousands.


July 31 • 2:00 PM

A New York State of Fracking

Court cases. A governor’s moratorium. Pending health study. A quick guide to the state of fracking in New York.


July 31 • 11:17 AM

How California Could Power Itself Using Nothing but Renewables

We don’t need fossil fuels.


July 31 • 8:00 AM

Should Athletes Train Their Memories?

Sure, but it probably won’t help.


July 31 • 6:00 AM

Universal Basic Income: Something We Can All Agree on?

According to Almaz Zelleke, it’s not a crazy thought.


July 31 • 4:00 AM

Medical Dramas Produce Misinformed, Fatalistic Viewers

New research suggests TV doctor dramas leave viewers with skewed impressions of important health-related topics.


July 30 • 4:00 PM

Still the World’s Top Military Spender

Although declining in real terms, the United States’ military budget remains substantial and a huge drain on our public resources.



July 30 • 2:04 PM

The Rise of the Nuisance Flood

Minor floods are afflicting parts of Maryland nearly 10 times more often than was the case in the 1960s.


July 30 • 2:00 PM

The (Mostly Awful) Things You Learn After Investigating Unpaid Internships for a Year

Though the intern economy remains opaque, dialogue about the role of interns in the labor force—and protections they deserve—is beginning to take shape.


July 30 • 12:00 PM

Why Coffee Shortages Won’t Change the Price of Your Frappuccino

You’re so loyal to Starbucks—and the company knows it—that your daily serving of caffeine is already marked up beyond the reach of any fluctuations in supply.



July 30 • 10:00 AM

Having Difficult Conversations With Your Children

Why it’s necessary, and how to do it.


July 30 • 8:00 AM

How to Make a Convincing Sci-Fi Movie on a Tight Budget

Coherence is a good movie, and its initial shoot cost about the same amount of money as a used Prius.


July 30 • 6:00 AM

Are You Really as Happy as You Say You Are?

Researchers find a universal positivity bias in the way we talk, tweet, and write.


July 30 • 4:00 AM

The Declining Wage Gap for Gay Men

New research finds gay men in America are rapidly catching up with straight married men in terms of wages.


July 30 • 2:00 AM

LeBron James Migration: Big Chef Seeking Small Pond

The King’s return to Cleveland is a symbol for the dramatic shift in domestic as well as international migration.


July 29 • 4:00 PM

Are Children Seeking Refuge Turning More Americans Against Undocumented Immigrants?

A look at Pew Research Center survey data collected in February and July of this year.


July 29 • 2:00 PM

Under Water: The EPA’s Ongoing Struggle to Combat Pollution

Frustration and inaction color efforts to enforce the Clean Water Act.


July 29 • 12:40 PM

America’s Streams Are Awash With Pesticides Banned in Europe

You may have never heard of clothianidin, but it’s probably in your local river.


July 29 • 12:00 PM

Mining Your Genetic Data for Profit: The Dark Side of Biobanking

One woman’s personal story raises deep questions about the stark limits of current controls in a nascent industry at the very edge of the frontier of humans and technology.


July 29 • 11:23 AM

Where Should You Go to College?


July 29 • 10:29 AM

How Textbooks Have Changed the Face of War

War is more personal, less glorious, and more hellish in modern textbooks than in the past. But there’s still room for improvement.


July 29 • 10:00 AM

The Monolingual American: Why Are Those Outside of the U.S. Encouraging It?

If you are an American trying to learn German in a large German town or city, you will mostly hear English in return, even when you give sprechen your best shot.


July 29 • 8:00 AM

The Elusive Link Between Casinos and Crime

With a study of the impact of Philadelphia’s SugarHouse Casino, a heated debate gets fresh ammunition.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

The Rise of the Nuisance Flood

Minor floods are afflicting parts of Maryland nearly 10 times more often than was the case in the 1960s.

America’s Streams Are Awash With Pesticides Banned in Europe

You may have never heard of clothianidin, but it's probably in your local river.

How Textbooks Have Changed the Face of War

War is more personal, less glorious, and more hellish in modern textbooks than in the past. But there’s still room for improvement.

NASA Could Build Entire Spacecrafts in Space Using 3-D Printers

This year NASA will experiment with 3-D printing small objects in space. That could mark the beginning of a gravity-free manufacturing revolution.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.