Corruption, Rule of Law and Democracy: Concepts, Boundaries and Oxymora

Stephen D. Morris


Despite heightened attention to corruption, multiple reform efforts, and democratization in the past few decades, corruption remains stubbornly per¬sistent throughout the world. Much of the research on corruption highlights an inverse relationship linking corruption to the rule of law and to democracy. But rather than concentrate on the relationships among these critical variables, this research note focuses its attention on the intense debates in the literature over how to define these key concepts and the competing definitions. Analysis differentiates thin and thick definitions of each of the three concepts, highlights their shared emphasis on limiting state power and their use of vague criteria to demarcate the conceptual boundaries. Amid intense debate, all three essentially ground their li¬mits on state power on rather vague notions of justice, equality, or the common or public good. The main argument here is that in many cases this results in a con¬ceptual overlap and blurred boundaries. Depending on the definition employed, corruption can be seen as conceptually embedded within the notion of the rule of law which, in turn, is encompassed within our understanding of democracy. At one level, these common conceptual components potentially fashion tautologies and oxymora, complicating questions about the theoretical relationships among them: is it even possible for a country to have high levels of corruption and strong rule of law? Or high levels of corruption and yet still be considered democratic? At an empirical level, the conceptual overlap complicates the examination of such theoretical linkages because of endogeneity potential. I illustrate this pro¬blem briefly by noting how in some cases the indices of democracy encompass measures of the rule of law or corruption, and vice versa. The essay concludes by highlighting how disaggregating the concepts raises other interesting questions and analytical challenges.


Corruption; Rule of law; democracy; definitional debates; issues of endogeneity

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