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?
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.”