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Political Corruption

Updated on July 8, 2010

Political corruption is a general term for the misuse of a public position of trust for private gain. Its specific definition and application vary with time, place, and culture. Many actions popularly described as corrupt may not be so defined in law, although they may constitute a departure from strict ethical standards.

The definition of corruption in areas other than politics is also uncertain. Because of the quasi-public nature of large enterprises in modern capitalist countries, financial manipulations and decisions injurious to the economy are often labeled corrupt. The term is often applied also to misjudgments by officials in the public economies of socialist societies.

Political corruption concerns the illegal pursuit or misuse of public office. Electoral corruption includes purchase of votes with money, promises of office or special favors, coercion, intimidation, and interference with freedom of election. Corruption in office involves sale of legislative votes, administrative or judicial decision, or governmental appointment. Disguised payment in the form of gifts, legal fees, employment, favors to relatives, social influence, or any relationship that sacrifices the public interest and welfare, with or without the implied payment of money, is usually considered corrupt.

Political corruption, as old as the history of government, has not distinguished among cultures, systems of governments, or ideologies. Corruption in ancient Greece and Rome increased with their expansion from homogeneous city-states to commercial power and imperial dominion. In medieval Europe, privileges and exemptions were often open to purchase from both church and state.

Rise of Corruption in England. In medieval England, the public duty of serving in Parliament was so unpopular that men often paid to avoid it. However, with the rise of the Tudors, the influence of Parliament increased. After the Restoration of the Stuart kings in 1660, the king and his opponents competed, not by fighting, but by corrupting the Parliament in order to further their respective aims.

Electoral corruption continued late into the 19th century. Suffrage had been highly and irrationally restricted. Many English and most Irish parliamentary seats were controlled either by influential landowners or by boroughs (incorporated urban centers) that were often "close corporations," dominated by one political party.

Effective Reform in England. A combination of middle-class demands, aristocratic concern, and the needs of political modernization brought reform from above, beginning primarily with the Reform Act of 1832. Disraeli's reform law in 1867 and Gladstone's in 1884 provided virtually universal manhood suffrage, which combined with the secret ballot of 1872 to make elections difficult to control. Reporting of electoral spending had been established in 1854, and 14 years later its regulation was transferred from Parliament to the courts. The corrupt and illegal practices act of 1883 carefully prescribed the conduct of elections, limited spending, focused responsibility, and set heavy penalties for violations. Despite some modernizing amendments, there have been no further basic changes. There is still no reporting of money spent by the national party organizations, as in the United States, and union and corporate contributions are not prohibited.

English local government was democratized and protected against corruption by laws such as the reform act and the municipal corporation act of die 1830's, the corrupt and illegal practices act of 1883, and the parish councils act of 1895. There were also attempts to improve the courts, legal profession, police, and penal system. Lord Macau-lay's merit system for the Indian civil service in 1833 was copied in 1853 for England. Corruption by military suppliers had been attacked by William Pitt in 1782, and purchase of rank in the navy and army was reformed in the next century.

Factors that shaped England's exemplary political system included evangelical Christianity, utilitarian rationalism, middle-class pressure, and the Victorian spirit of morality and public service. Other significant factors were the growth of mass literacy, pressure from reformers and the popular press, the growth of a programmatic political party system, and strong and often disinterested leadership in Parliament.

Corruption in the United States. Factors that contributed to corruption in the United States included rapid national growth, a mobile society that emphasizes individualism and material success, and a heterogeneous federal system of overlapping jurisdictions. George Washington established an initial honesty of procedure in the national administration that was not basically compromised by "spoils systems." However, political corruption was found in the Yazoo land frauds of 1795, the disproportionate power of the Second Bank of the United States, the 19th century "machines" of William Marcy Tweed, Thur-low Weed, and Simon Cameron, and the venality of Reconstruction legislatures and their "redeemer" successors.

19th Century Excesses. All former scandals seem pale beside the corruption of the late 19th century a8& °f enterprise. At a time of political laxity and industrial growth, the national government under President Grant suffered corruption that was not to be equaled until the Harding era in the 1920's. Custom house, revenue, and mail scandals were matched by state and urban graft and by land frauds. Sharp operators such as Jay Gould manipulated the stock market, while many industrialists and railroad builders practiced corruption. Senators and congressmen represented special interests, such as steel and oil.

First Civil Service. After a "spoils" seeker shot President Garfield, the Pendleton Act of 1883 set up a classified civil service. This made political parties more dependent on business for campaign financing. Although New York and Massachusetts passed civil service laws in the 1880's, no other state followed until after 1900. State and urban machines still flourished. City bosses held the large immigrant vote by providing necessary welfare services, while opposing reform and selling privileges.

Urge for Reform. After 1900 the corrupting power of business bigness was attacked by urban middle-class progressives. Aided by "muckraking" magazine articles, these progressive reformers felt they could better society by curbing economic privilege. Their solutions included municipal ownership, city commission and management plans, utility and railroad regulation, primaries, direct election of senators, and corrupt practices laws, as well as many reforms in health, housing, labor, tariff, taxation, and banking.


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