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What is Corruption?

Tammany Hall is an infamous example of political corruption.
Elected officials take an oath to uphold the public trust, but may face corruption charges if they behave unethically.
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  • Written By: Michael Pollick
  • Edited By: Niki Foster
  • Images By: Circasassy, Qingwa
  • Last Modified Date: 04 July 2014
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There is an old axiom often applied to those with political ambitions: Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely. In this case, the term "corruption" means the abuse of a public office for personal gain or other illegal or immoral benefit. Political corruption is a recognized criminal offense, along with bribery, extortion, and embezzlement. Some forms may escape legal notice, such as the hiring of relatives for key positions, but they may not escape the scrutiny of voters on election day.

Whenever a person accepts a political appointment or wins election to an office, he or she must take an oath to uphold the public trust. While this may sound noble on paper, enforcement of this oath can prove problematic. Very few political candidates successfully reach office without making a few campaign promises along the way, and many of these promises are harmless, such as sponsoring a bill or lobbying for more funding for schools. Other promises, however, may come closer to crossing an ethical line, such as hiring relatives or awarding government contracts to influential contributors.

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Political corruption has been a fact of life for thousands of years, beginning with the first attempts at a democratic form of government in ancient Greece and Rome. Almost all of these countries' political representatives were from the wealthier class, which inevitably led to a division between the influential haves and the virtually powerless have-nots. The seeds of abuse were planted as soon as the senators and other political leaders realized that power and wealth could be equals. Political corruption often begins with favoritism towards those with wealth and influence.

In the modern sense of the term, this type of activity is a cancer on the integrity of a governmental body. Very few public officials begin their careers with the intention of becoming corrupt, but some succumb to a sinister form of peer pressure over time. Being placed in a position of significant political power can be overwhelming, and the temptation to bend or break rules for a perceived "greater good" is always present.

There are a few experienced politicians, however, for whom political corruption is a natural state of being. History is filled with examples of corrupt public officials, such as New York City's Boss Tweed and his political cronies at Tammany Hall during the late 19th century. Charges ranging from bribery and graft to nepotism, racketeering, and fraud were all leveled at Tweed's administration, but he was able to keep law enforcement at bay for years. A number of judges and law enforcement officers were already on Boss Tweed's secret payroll. Political corruption may always remain a concern for democratic governments, but there are a number of independent checks and balances that can root it out before it affects the integrity of the political body as a whole.

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Discuss this Article

bear78
Post 9

I just wrote a corruption related essay for class. I think that there is a problem with what is perceived as corruption. What we define as corruption in the US may not be seen that way in another culture.

Many Americans returning from Afghanistan complain about bribery there. But in Afghan culture, this is termed as gift-giving and is not considered to be a negative thing. The notion of corruption doesn't really exist in this sense there.

So I think that we need to consider cultural factors before we label any country or group of people as corrupt.

fBoyle
Post 8

@turquoise-- I don't think we need to single out developing countries. Bureaucratic corruption is everywhere, including all developed Western countries.

turquoise
Post 7

@anon48082-- I think India ranks 94th or 95th out of almost 200 countries. It's quite high but not the highest.

When organizations do corruption studies in India however, most of the people in the studies say that they've paid bribe at some point.

This is not a problem endemic only in India though. Global corruption is high in general and many developing democracies are experiencing problem. Russia is another country where corruption is very high.

The sad part is that in countries in Russia and India, it's not just the lower level government employees engaging in it but also politicians and ministers.

anon193521
Post 6

god knows. by the way. Why do you need it?

subway11
Post 4

Sunny27- I agree with you. Anytime there are no checks and balances political corruption occurs and it’s the people that the representative or government serves that suffer the most.

But corruption is not limited to governments. Businesses also offer from this ailment, but instead when corruption occurs there, the stockholders might suffer depending on the level and scope of the corruption.

Sunny27
Post 3

Anon48082- I don’t know the answer to your question but I want to say that corruption, especially political corruption hurts the population in general.

For example, the lack of infrastructure in Haiti was a result of political corruption. This resulted in a making a natural disaster in even more devastating situation.

The government of Haiti did not serve its people by providing a disaster recovery plan or enforcing stronger building codes. These are basic functions of a government, yet most Haitians did not receive this support.

anon48082
Post 2

what is corruption rank of india?

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