Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


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

November 25 • 4:00 PM

Is the Federal Reserve Bank of New York Doing Enough to Monitor Wall Street?

Bank President William Dudley says supervision is stronger than ever, but Democratic senators are unconvinced: “You need to fix it, Mr. Dudley, or we need to get someone who will.”


November 25 • 3:30 PM

Cultural Activities Help Seniors Retain Health Literacy

New research finds a link between the ability to process health-related information and regular attendance at movies, plays, and concerts.


November 25 • 12:00 PM

Why Did Doctors Stop Giving Women Orgasms?

You can thank the rise of the vibrator for that, according to technology historian Rachel Maines.


November 25 • 10:08 AM

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.


November 25 • 10:00 AM

If It’s Yellow, Seriously, Let It Mellow

If you actually care about water and the future of the species, you’ll think twice about flushing.


November 25 • 8:00 AM

Sometimes You Should Just Say No to Surgery

The introduction of national thyroid cancer screening in South Korea led to a 15-fold increase in diagnoses and a corresponding explosion of operations—but no difference in mortality rates. This is a prime example of over-diagnosis that’s contributing to bloated health care costs.



November 25 • 6:00 AM

The Long War Between Highbrow and Lowbrow

Despise The Avengers? Loathe the snobs who despise The Avengers? You’re not the first.


November 25 • 4:00 AM

Are Women More Open to Sex Than They Admit?

New research questions the conventional wisdom that men overestimate women’s level of sexual interest in them.


November 25 • 2:00 AM

The Geography of Innovation, or, Why Almost All Japanese People Hate Root Beer

Innovation is not a product of population density, but of something else entirely.


November 24 • 4:00 PM

Federal Reserve Announces Sweeping Review of Its Big Bank Oversight

The Federal Reserve Board wants to look at whether the views of examiners are being heard by higher-ups.



November 24 • 2:00 PM

That Catcalling Video Is a Reminder of Why Research Methods Are So Important

If your methods aren’t sound then neither are your findings.


November 24 • 12:00 PM

Yes, Republicans Can Still Win the White House

If the economy in 2016 is where it was in 2012 or better, Democrats will likely retain the White House. If not, well….


November 24 • 11:36 AM

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it’s relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.


November 24 • 10:00 AM

Why Are Patients Drawn to Certain Doctors?

We look for an emotional fit between our physicians and ourselves—and right now, that’s the best we can do.


November 24 • 8:00 AM

Why Do We Elect Corrupt Politicians?

Voters, it seems, are willing to forgive—over and over again—dishonest yet beloved politicians if they think the job is still getting done.



November 24 • 6:00 AM

They Steal Babies, Don’t They?

Ethiopia, the Hague, and the rise and fall of international adoption. An exclusive investigation of internal U.S. State Department documents describing how humanitarian adoptions metastasized into a mini-industry shot through with fraud, becoming a source of income for unscrupulous orphanages, government officials, and shady operators—and was then reined back in through diplomacy, regulation, and a brand-new federal law.


November 24 • 4:00 AM

Nudging Drivers, and Pedestrians, Into Better Behavior

Daniel Pink’s new series, Crowd Control, premieres tonight on the National Geographic Channel.


November 21 • 4:00 PM

Why Are America’s Poorest Toddlers Being Over-Prescribed ADHD Drugs?

Against all medical guidelines, children who are two and three years old are getting diagnosed with ADHD and treated with Adderall and other stimulants. It may be shocking, but it’s perfectly legal.



November 21 • 2:00 PM

The Best Moms Let Mess Happen

That’s the message of a Bounty commercial that reminds this sociologist of Sharon Hays’ work on “the ideology of intensive motherhood.”


November 21 • 12:00 PM

Eating Disorders Are Not Just for Women

Men, like women, are affected by our cultural preoccupation with thinness. And refusing to recognize that only makes things worse.


November 21 • 10:00 AM

Queens of the South

Inside Asheville, North Carolina’s 7th annual Miss Gay Latina pageant.


Follow us


Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it's relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn't vanish as we age—it just moves.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

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