Dear Economist: More politicians, less corruption?

Here in India – as in most other parts of the world – there is an assumption that all politicians are corrupt. As such, politics is not the first career choice for most individuals. However, if all politicians are indeed corrupt, wouldn’t that mean that all politicians benefit more than the rest of us? Therefore, shouldn’t the rational choice be that more people join politics? And would “competition” reduce corruption?
Chirag Panjikar, India

Dear Chirag,

You are clearly thinking along the right lines, but the details can be more subtle. I asked Mikhail Drugov, an expert on the economics of corruption from Oxford University, for advice. One of his observations is that politicians may not necessarily make more money from a corrupt system. If, for example, you wish to exploit a political position for personal gain, you may find that to obtain the position, you must pay a substantial bribe to some other politician. On balance, even the most venal political neophyte may decide it is easier to make money by getting a proper job.

Competition may reduce bribes: as the economist Robert Klitgaard famously commented: “Corruption equals monopoly minus accountability plus discretion.” It’s hard to charge a bribe if the official in the next office will perform the same service for less.

But competition does not always reduce corruption. The number of bribes required may rise, even as the size of the bribes falls. And corruption can secure illegitimate services as easily as legitimate ones. Should we be pleased if it becomes cheaper to obtain a driving licence when one cannot actually drive?

When competition does reduce corruption, it is very good news. In such cases, the most feared phrase in politics should be “bipartisan agreement” – for which read “cartel”.

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