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  • Political CorruptionPolitical Corruption

The abuse of public office for private gain afflicts all forms of government, including communist, military, and personalistic dictatorships. Yet political corruption poses particularly serious dangers for democracy, because it is more likely to be exposed under conditions of constitutionalism and press freedom, and because this exposure can do great damage to political legitimacy, on which democracies depend for their survival much more than authoritarian regimes.

Rampant corruption, typically accompanied by incompetent and arrogant governance, disillusions ordinary citizens and alienates them from the political process. Legitimacy is further eroded by the instability, violence, fraud, bribery, and contempt for the rules of the game that characterize political competition in a system where election to office is the gateway to instant personal fortune. In many developing countries, corruption has been a central factor in the breakdown of democracy.

Human nature being what it is, political corruption-like ordinary crime and immorality-will probably never be eliminated. As recent financial scandals in Europe, the U.S., and Japan show, corruption continues to plague long-established democracies. The challenge is to reduce it to levels that do not threaten the entire political system. We present the set of articles that follows in the conviction that, unless corruption can be controlled at least to this degree, it may seriously endanger global progress toward democracy.

In the opening essay, Michael Johnston explores the origins of corruption in the process of political development, and reviews the historical experience with political reform in the U.S. and Britain. Two case studies-of Thailand by Catharin Dalpino and of Nigeria by Larry Diamond-portray the damage that corruption does to democratic development and identify ways to combat it through effective legal institutions and the mobilization of civil society. In the concluding essay, Robert Klitgaard shows that reform is possible without a prior revolution in values. Rather, two things are essential: institutional changes that reduce the benefits and increase the costs of corruption, and political leadership committed to implementing such changes.

Each of these essays also points to the wider benefits that successful reform can bring. By improving accountability, reducing bureaucracy, decentralizing power, strengthening the law, and energizing civil society, the fight against political corruption can make a major contribution to the consolidation and invigoration of democracy.

-The Editors [End Page 47]



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