Corruption is an archetypal topic for students of public choice. It brings together the private search for economic gain with the government’s efforts to supply public goods, correct market failures, and aid the needy. Public choice’s insistence on viewing politicians and government bureaucrats as motivated by the same economic interests as private individuals and firms provides a background for understanding why corruption occurs and why it is difficult to combat.

Corruption in my formulation is the misuse of public office for private gain. This definition leaves open the issue of just what constitutes misuse, but it recognizes that sometimes public office can legitimately provide private benefits to politicians and bureaucrats. Thus, targeted ‘‘pork barrel’’ projects and special interest legislation are not corrupt. They result from the day-to-day operation of a representative political system. If a legislator works to pass a statute that is favored by his or her legal campaign donors, this is not corrupt even if it violates democratic ideals. Those who seek to discredit government across the board often put the ‘‘corruption’’ label on all kinds of government actions. Although many of these phenomena are indeed proper subjects of study and the loci of reform efforts, it will not help the analysis of democracy to put them all into the corruption pot.

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  • Susan Rose-Ackerman

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