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Democracy and Corruption: A Global Time-Series Analysis with V-Dem Data

Working paper
Authors Kelly M. McMann
Brigitte Seim
Jan Teorell
Staffan I Lindberg
Publisher University of Gothenburg, Varieties of Democracy Institute: Working Paper No. 43. March 2017
Place of publication Gothenburg
Publication year 2017
Published at Quality of Government Institute (QoG)
Department of Political Science
V-Dem Institute
Language en
Subject categories Political Science


Theory predicts democracy should reduce corruption. Yet, numerous scholars have found empirically that corruption decreases at high levels of democracy but actually increases at low levels. A key weaknesses of studies that aim to explain this inverted curvilinear relationship, however, is that they do not disaggregate the complex concept of democracy. By contrast, this working paper disaggregates democracy theoretically and empirically. Our theoretical framework shows how components of democracy affect costs and benefits of engaging in corruption and, therefore, the level of corruption overall. Whereas other studies examine only how democratic accountability imposes costs on those engaging in corruption and thus illuminate only the downward curve of the relationship, we also examine the transaction costs and political support benefits of corruption and therefore can explain the initial uptick in corruption at low levels of democracy. Using measures of democratic components from Varieties of Democracy, we examine 173 countries from 1900 to 2012 and find that freedoms of expression and association exhibit the inverted curvilinear relationship with corruption, and that judicial constraints have a negative linear relationship. Moreover, the introduction of elections and the quality of elections act jointly, but each in a linear fashion. The mere introduction of elections increases corruption, thus accounting for the upward sloping segment of the inverted curve. Once the quality of elections begins to improve, corruption decreases, resulting in the downward-sloping segment of the curve.

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