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JSPES, Vol. 32, No. 3 (Fall 2007)
pp. 359-376

Corruption and Democracy: Is Lord Acton Right?

Herbert H. Werlin

Formerly University of Maryland and currently Independent Consultant

This article examines Lord Acton’s famous assertion, “power tends to corrupt and absolute power, to corrupt absolutely,” including the suggestion that democratization reduces corruption. This assertion requires us to look at the meaning of three words: power, corruption, and democracy. For this reason, the article begins by making a distinction between primary and secondary corruption (essentially, controllable and uncontrollable corruption) and between liberal democracy (emphasizing competitive politics) and classical democracy (emphasizing consensusbuilding politics). An argument is made for a case study approach (combined with “ordinary language” methodology) in analyzing the corruption-democracy linkage, rather than the prevailing quantitative methodology, particularly comparing India and China. Conventional definitions of corruption (e.g., misuse of public resources for private gain) and democracy (emphasizing elections and majority rule) would indicate that China is more corrupt than India.

However, judging from a comparison of two cities (Shanghai and Mumbai), this is clearly not the case because of the prevailing secondary corruption in Mumbai. Political Elasticity (PE) Theory is introduced to explain why secondary corruption is so dysfunctional for development. Effective political power (using this theory) takes on “rubber band” and “balloon” characteristics, facilitating delegation of responsibility and public respect - all of which can be undermined by uncontrollable corruption. This theory is also used (with Russia in mind) to examine Hobbes’s position regarding authoritarian rule. At the conclusion, the point is made that, insofar as political power becomes entirely coercive, it will indeed be corruptive, undermining the political software (referring to social relationships) essential for the functioning of institutions, as suggested by Lord Acton. If, however, political power takes a persuasive form, it is unlikely to be so corruptive, especially if it becomes a form of social energy.