Rice political scientist examines political corruption in new book

Corruption plagues countries throughout the world, and even the most democratic countries constantly face threats of corruption and its consequences at the polls. But why are some governments more corrupt than others?

In “Clarity of Responsibility, Accountability and Corruption,” a new book from Cambridge University Press, authors Leslie Schwindt-Bayer and Margit Tavits argue that clarity of responsibility – or institutional arrangements that make it easier for voters to monitor and hold accountable their elected representatives – is critical for reducing corruption in democracies, both in the U.S. and abroad. Schwindt-Bayer is Rice’s Albert Thomas Chair and associate professor of political science; Tavits is a professor of political science at Washington University in St. Louis.

“When clarity of responsibility is high, politicians have a more difficult time shifting blame for undesirable outcomes, and voters can more easily monitor decision-makers and assign them responsibility for political performance,” Schwindt-Bayer said. “Voters can then vote corrupt officials out of office. When clarity of responsibility is low, parties can blame one another for poor outcomes, such as corruption, and voters cannot assign responsibility because they are not sure which of the parties is in control of government. It is much more difficult for voters to vote corrupt officials out of office under these conditions.”

The authors provide a variety of evidence to support this argument. They conducted a cross-national statistical analysis with 76 countries across 21 years (1990-2010) to show a significant statistical correlation between clarity of responsibility and corruption. They used national surveys conducted in more than 20 countries and an original survey experiment in the U.S. to show that voters are less likely to vote for an incumbent party when corruption levels in a country and clarity of responsibility are high. They also provide preliminary evidence that elected officials respond to the threat of being held accountable for poor performance by voters and are more likely to work to combat corruption when clarity of responsibility is high.

Schwindt-Bayer and Tavits hope the book will inspire additional research about the way different political institutions facilitate and hinder cultures of corruption.

“Stopping corruption is complicated,” Schwindt-Bayer said. “There are a variety of different things that must happen to end government corruption once and for all – some are institutional, some are political, some are structural and some are cultural. It’s a multifaceted problem.”

More information about the book is available online at http://bit.ly/2nk8rH4.

About Amy McCaig

Amy is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.