Are Democracies Least Corrupt?

May 8, 2009

[First published October 27, 2005] One of the extraordinary characteristics of dictatorships, especially absolutists ones, is their government corruption. This comes out in biographies of those who, for example, have lived in North Korea or in South Vietnam when it was defeated and occupied by the North. And under authoritarian regimes, this corruption seems only marginally less, as under the Chinese Nationalists before their defeat by Mao. My impression, consistent with that of others, has been the democracy is among the least corrupt types of government.

Now, this has been tested. Transparency International has provided for 2005 a perception of corruption index for 146 nations (here). Kenneth Sikorski added to this index the freedom house ranking of nations on their civil liberties and civil rights (from here), which measures their freedom, and found that the index included 67 free, 45 partly free, and 34 unfree nations (excluding North Korea). He then averaged these three political groups on their perceived corruption, as shown below (total scores for all nations in the group/number of nations in the group — personal communication):

Free (2901/67) = 43.3
Partly Free (4076/45) = 96.6
Not Free (3470/34 = 102.05

So, partly free and not free nations are perceived to be over twice as corrupt as democracies. This is another plus for democracies, of course. They don’t war on each other, have the least domestic violence, virtually never kill their own people, experience no famines, and also are least corrupt.

This gets almost embarrassing after awhile in relating this to people who ignorant of research on the democratic peace, as I did in a talk today. It seems that one is obsessed with a one-factor theory of humanity’s major problems. This runs counter to general intuition, and to common sense in the social sciences, which is that the socio-political world is complex with multiple causes and conditions interacting to produce events. No one factor is sufficient, so it is felt. Well, there is one major factor, and that is democratic freedom. The evidence, such as the above, is always available to doubters, if only they will look at it. All I can say is what Galileo Galilei said when his astronomical observations were doubted and he was persecuted for them. “Look through the telescope,” he responded.


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