Is the United States Government Corrupt?

On that question, we have a conflict. Gallup polls report that, in recent years, at least two out of three (more recently almost four out of five) Americans feel that corruption is widespread throughout the United States government. But Transparency International (TI, based in Germany) publishes a Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), each January, indicating that most Americans feel theirs is among the twenty least corrupt governments in the world.

Gallup and TI are of course not the only sources on the question of whether the U.S. government is corrupt. But working through their disagreement provides some useful insights on that question.

Understanding the Divergence

In a set of FAQs, TI indicates that its CPI focuses on corruption in the government, not in the society as a whole. But that does not explain the difference: Gallup, likewise, is asking about the government. Part of the difference in results may be due to the fact that TI’s CPI measures corruption “from the perspective of business people and country experts,” whereas Gallup polls ordinary citizens. But the most important factor may be that TI and the public seem to use different definitions.

TI explains that, in its view, “Corruption is the abuse of entrusted power for private gain.” Elsewhere, TI characterizes it as “a crime that prefers to remain covert and concealed.” So for TI, “corruption” means the illegal corruption of government officials seeking personal benefit.

That is one way to interpret the word. But the Merriam-Webster Dictionary offers another, much broader definition of corruption: “impairment of integrity, virtue, or moral principle” — or, if you prefer, “a departure from the original or from what is pure or correct.” Wikipedia observes that corruption isn’t limited to crimes, as TI claims: it “may also involve practices that are legal in many countries.” Legality is not a reliable guide, according to Wikipedia, because “those with power often have the ability to make laws for their protection.” In the concise phrasing of, “Corruption is dishonest action that destroys people’s trust.”

TI limits its inquiry to situations where people in government are skimming, being bribed, or otherwise acting “for private gain.” A judge or elected official who is cruel, prejudiced, lazy, or stupid, but not actually taking bribes, would not count as corrupt within the TI definition. Such a person would damage public trust in government, though, and thus would probably be considered corrupt in the ordinary citizen’s sense of the word.

(Note that webpages can be changed to alter objectionable phrasing. Anyone interested in seeing these webpages in the form they had at this writing can probably find them in the Internet Archive.)

Corruption at Transparency International

It would not be surprising if insiders, elites, and people who benefit from existing arrangements tend not to consider those arrangements corrupt. Of course, their very status, as individuals who benefit disproportionately from the status quo, may itself be a mark of corruption.

Membership in the status quo may have influenced TI’s decisions on the proper definition of corruption. Wikipedia indicates that TI was founded and has become prominent through the involvement of corporate chiefs and former World Bank executives; that TI has been historically inclined toward a conservative philosophy focusing on the people (often in developing nations) who received bribes, but not on those (often in developed nations) who were paying them; and that TI has engaged in dubious practices — most recently, accepting a controversial $3 million donation, seen as corporate greenwashing, from the Siemens corporation, one year after the head of TI’s office in Brussels went to work for Siemens. (See also Monbiot, 2015.)

TI itself offers publications and tools that highlight problems in the CPI’s narrow definition of corruption, and that tend to support Gallup’s findings (above). Unfortunately, TI seems to downplay these alternate materials. Unlike the CPI, TI does not update them annually, and their structure and presentation tend to be slanted, again, toward the views that corruption necessarily involves government and is best detected by (or for) businesspeople. Consider, for example, TI’s Bribe Payers Index (BPI). The BPI was first published in 1999, was only updated every two to four years, and at this writing has not been updated since 2011. The BPI is “based on the views of business executives.” Surely business executives have long known that, as the 2011 BPI (p. 3) admits, “Bribery between companies across different sectors is seen as just as common as bribery between firms and public officials.” And yet that 2011 BPI was the first (and so far, the only) version of the BPI that actually examined bribery between firms.

Or consider TI’s Global Corruption Barometer (GCB, 2013, the only update since 2010). The GCB reports the results of a TI survey of thousands of people around the world. Like the CPI, the GCB’s questionnaire is structured to suggest, to the participant, that s/he should consider “corruption” solely a governmental phenomenon. The questions ask about control of government, but not about control of the economy or of financial corporations; they ask whether the government (but not the private sector) is effective in fighting corruption; and they ask about bribes paid to government employees, but (again) not about bribes paid to someone within a company (to disclose company secrets, for instance, or to influence or sabotage company efforts). That seems very odd, in an economy where private corporations supply everything from food to military equipment. Moreover, within government, the GCB doesn’t ask about nepotism, patronage, influence peddling, or other forms of political corruption — forms that, unlike bribery, tend to be available only to powerful people. If TI’s leaders are genuinely concerned about corruption of government, and are not merely trying to divert attention away from their corporate friends, surely they should be asking whether survey participants have noticed sweetheart deals or other malfeasance at the executive level.

Studying a part of the problem is not a good strategy for reaching sound conclusions about the whole. After defining corruption too narrowly and thus understating the kinds and quantities of corrupt practices, TI’s CPI presentation tries to push the claim that “The G20 [group of developed nations] needs to prove its global leadership role” in battling corruption. That advice does not make sense even within TI’s own terms. TI’s FAQs clearly admit that the CPI “is not a verdict on the levels of corruption of entire nations or societies.” How, then, can TI conclude that G20 nations should lead non-G20 nations in matters of corruption? And where did they get the notion that the G20 would be the right group to provide leadership? The G20 includes China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia. Would it not make more sense to seek leadership from a few of the world’s least corrupt societies?

Findings from TI’s Global Corruption Barometer (GCB)

This post is examining the question of whether the U.S. government is corrupt. TI’s GCB explores the question of what governmental corruption might mean.

In the U.S., as in other nations, the GCB asked a large number of survey participants whether they felt that various institutions in their nation were corrupt, extremely corrupt, or not corrupt. Responses fell into several groupings:

  • Only about one-third of participants felt that certain U.S. institutions were corrupt or extremely corrupt: the military (judged corrupt or extremely corrupt by 30% of participants), nongovernmental organizations (NGOs, typically nonprofits) (30%), education systems (34%), and religious bodies (35%).
  • Several U.S. institutions were considered corrupt or extremely corrupt by somewhat less than half of participants: the legal system (42%), police (42%), and medical and health services (43%).
  • Two institutions were considered corrupt or extremely corrupt by somewhat more than half of participants: business (53%) and civil servants (55%).
  • Finally, several institutions were considered corrupt or extremely corrupt by clear majorities: media (58%), the legislature (probably meaning Congress, for most participants) (61%), and political parties (76%).

When asking whether the U.S. government is corrupt, then, one might ask more specifically about different portions of government. The GCB seems to say that Americans consider the military and education systems less corrupt than the police and the legal system, that businesspeople and civil servants are worse still, and that Congress and political parties are widely considered corrupt.

The GCB asked a follow-on question about bribery, for those who had come into contact with any of eight specified institutions. The question was, “Have you or anyone in  your household paid a bribe to one of these eight services in the last 12 months?” Not all of the foregoing governmental institutions were named in that list of eight. But 7% of participants did report paying a bribe to the police, 11% to someone in education services, and 15% to someone in the legal system.

That question was asked only of those who said they had come into contact with such institutions. Let’s illustrate how this works, using the legal system as an example. TI’s downloadable data files indicate that 12% of American participants said they had come into contact with the legal system during the last 12 months. (The webpage says “judiciary,” but the data files indicate that the online questionnaire did refer to the legal system.) So of the 12% of Americans who came into contact with the legal system during the preceding year, 15% (i.e., more than one out of seven) felt that, on at least one occasion, they (or someone in their household) had bribed a judge, a clerk, a parole officer, or someone else within the system — to fix a traffic ticket, perhaps, or to advance one’s case on a court docket, or as part of a plea bargain, or to get special attention from an attorney. No doubt bribes could range from a minor favor for someone’s nephew, to a promise not to file a burdensome motion, to an outright offer of sex or money. (See Pahis, 2009.)

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that, as of July 1, 2013, there were about 243 million Americans aged 18 or over. Assuming that was the population sampled, the preceding paragraphs imply that about 4.4 million Americans (i.e., 15% of 12% of 243M) had bribed someone in the legal system within the preceding year. A million here and a million there, and pretty soon we’re talking about a lot of people. But if those numbers are not persuasive, one need only consider the foregoing institutions — Congress, especially, and political parties, never mind school boards and mayors who may be distrusted within specific locations — to recognize that corruption is an issue in the U.S. Here, again, the GCB produced interesting data:

  • 36% of survey participants said that, over the preceding two years, the level of corruption in the U.S. has increased a lot, 24% said it has increased a little, and 30% said it has stayed the same. That’s 90%. Only 10% said it has decreased a little or a lot.
  • 38% said that corruption in the U.S. public sector is a serious problem, 31% said it is a problem, and 23% said it is a slight problem. Only 8% said it is not a problem.
  • 20% said that the U.S. government is run entirely by a few big entities acting in their own best interests, 44% said that was the case to a large extent, 27% said that was somewhat the case, 8% said this was the case only to a limited extent, and 2% said this was not the case at all.
  • How effective are the U.S. government’s actions, in the fight against corruption? 23% said very ineffective, 36% said ineffective, 23% said neither effective nor ineffective, 14% said effective, and 5% said very effective.

Context of the GCB’s Findings

What do these GCB data mean? There are a couple of ways to answer that question. One is to position the foregoing information within the larger U.S. economy. Despite TI’s obvious preoccupation with governmental corruption, as noted above, GCB survey participants perceived almost as much corruption in businesspeople (53%) as among civil servants (55%). Surveys (e.g., Gallup, 2015) commonly indicate that many business occupations (e.g., banking, realty, sales) are widely considered dishonest. It seems that, if TI had asked, survey participants would apparently have said there is considerable corruption in the private sector. It does not make sense to focus, as TI does, on governmental corruption: in the U.S., the private sector is about seven times larger than the public sector. Contra TI, the problem of corruption in the U.S. is not primarily a matter of government, and it is not likely that it will be fixed by studies or policies that focus only on government.

A different way to gauge the significance of the GCB findings for the U.S. would be to compare them against the GCB findings for another nation. The other country chosen for comparison could be one with a much worse corruption ranking, if one wished to pat oneself on the back and be glad that at least the U.S. hasn’t completely fallen apart. But it would probably make more sense to compare the U.S. against a country with a much better corruption ranking, so as to recognize that improvement is necessary, and to begin to get a sense of what can be done.

In the latter spirit, TI’s CPI (above) found Denmark to be the least politically corrupt nation. But how did it stack up in terms of this broader Global Corruption Barometer? The GCB’s Denmark page said that only 27% of Danes (i.e., less than half the percentage in the U.S.) felt that corruption had increased at all in the past two years, and only 4% said it had increased a lot; only 12% (about one-sixth the U.S. percentage) felt that it was anything more than a slight problem; and only 24% (less than half the U.S. percentage) felt that government was entirely or to a large extent run by a few big entities. In the questions about corrupt institutions, the results were as follows:

  • Religious bodies were rated worst, though not much different from the rating in the U.S.: 39% of Danish respondents felt such bodies were corrupt or extremely corrupt.
  • In sharp contrast against the U.S., less than one-third of Danish respondents felt that political parties (30%), media (30%), and business (31%) were corrupt or extremely corrupt.
  • Only small minorities considered Denmark’s legislature (18%), military (17%), NGOs (15%), medical and health services (13%), and public officials and civil servants (11%) to be corrupt or extremely corrupt.
  • Hardly anyone felt that “corrupt or extremely corrupt” was the best description for Denmark’s police (9%), education systems (6%), or judiciary (5%). Only 1% of Danes who had met with a member of the legal system reported paying a bribe in the preceding year.

There is much that would have to be sorted out before one could rely on Denmark as a source of guidance on reducing corruption. For example, it would be helpful to know whether Danes have different definitions of corruption, or different expectations of appropriate behavior. Preliminarily, though, TI’s GCB (unlike its CPI) does agree, with Gallup, that the U.S. government suffers from a relatively high level of corruption.


This post has examined the question of whether the U.S. government is corrupt. The examination began with a comparison between two surveys reporting divergent impressions of corruption. It appeared that one such survey, by Transparency International, downplayed the extent of actual corruption. It was not clear, from this analysis, whether that distortion was deliberate. But TI’s own publications raised the question of how TI could seriously propose that the U.S., never mind certain other G20 nations, should provide global leadership to help reduce corruption. It seemed unfortunate that TI chose to prioritize its CPI survey over its more informative GCB. The better approach, it seemed, would be to update the GCB annually, remove its excessive preoccupation with governmental as distinct from private-sector corruption, and thus make the GCB its primary gauge of corruption around the world.

The U.S. government is a big place, with many different leaders and organizations doing many different things. What is true of the CIA may not be true of AmeriCorps. Accordingly, TI’s GCB demonstrated that Americans did not feel equally distrustful of all governmental actors or institutions. For some purposes, it would probably make more sense to speak of perceived corruption within specific parts of the U.S. government, rather than of the government as a whole.

Yet that advice would go only so far. The GCB highlighted a sharp contrast between perceived levels of corruption in the U.S. and in Denmark, a country widely seen as enjoying good government. The least-trusted governmental agencies in Denmark were seen as less corrupt than the most-trusted agencies in the U.S., and all Danish institutions were considered far less corrupt than their U.S. counterparts. Here, again, Gallup seemed correct in concluding that, in the eyes of the public, the U.S. government is corrupt, with or without inquiry into its various agencies.

All of these surveys shared the drawback of being based on public perceptions. Such perceptions may accurately indicate whether the ordinary citizen feels that s/he is getting a raw deal from his/her government. But popular perceptions are subject to manipulation by politicians and media. This analysis did not attempt to determine the extent to which divergences in Danish and American perceptions of governmental corruption are due to distortions in news coverage. Complaints of corruption could also be a proxy for other issues, such as effective disenfranchisement. That is, people of a given race, gender, or socioeconomic status may feel neglected, if not abused, by majority preferences: a nation with large numbers of minorities may produce claims of higher corruption, when the real issue is a lack of minority representation. A more detailed study of governmental corruption would ideally draw upon measures that are independent of individual opinion, such as the numbers of false convictions or other failures to enforce the rules fairly, or indeed failure even to develop rules that other countries have developed to protect citizens.

From another perspective, though, such caveats could be irrelevant. If one views corruption as a disconnect between what eligible voters want the government to do and what it actually does, the bottom line may be that, for a variety of reasons, the U.S. government is out of touch with its constituents to a degree not found in Denmark. This is perhaps what one would expect of a massive federal government located hundreds if not thousands of miles from most of those constituents: the government may tend to proceed — sometimes it may have no alternative but to proceed — in ways that ordinary people do not understand. In that case, the first question may be, not whether the U.S. government is corrupt, but rather whether it is corrupt in ways, or to an extent, that exceeds what its people are willing to tolerate, given their apparent desire to be governed by a powerful entity based in a single city located near one edge of the nation’s large geographical area. For a large nation of that type, the proper comparison might be, not against Denmark, but rather against Russia, China, Brazil, and India, and an anticorruption effort might begin with a push for decentralization to regional centers of government throughout the nation (e.g., Los Angeles, Seattle, Denver, Omaha, Dallas, Chicago, Boston, Atlanta).

The gist of those remarks is that, yes, the U.S. government tends to be corrupt, but that possibly a certain level of corruption — a high level, compared to Denmark — is unavoidable in an enterprise the size of the United States. The fact that the American people would put up with it could say more about them than about their government. It could say, for instance, that they have been bought by the relative freedom, power, and wealth that their government has made possible. Heightened grumbling in recent years may suggest, not that the government is growing notably more corrupt, but rather that it is no longer so able to pay its citizens to look the other way as it bends its many rules and shirks many of its enormous duties. People may feel that something is wrong just because the American government and economy are reverting to historically more normal roles and weaker positions, no longer enjoying the atypical postwar global dominance of the 1950s and 1960s or the sole superpower status of the 1990s and 2000s.


The most relevant survey by Transparency International agrees, with Gallup, that the people of the United States perceive a relatively high level of corruption in their government.

The preceding discussion has explored the best way to characterize that perception of corruption. The situation seems to be as follows: some of that perception may be due to a real failure, on the part of the government, to devise good laws and to apply them fairly; some may stem from manipulation of public opinion by politicians and media; and some may arise as the ordinary person finds it less profitable to remain quietly complicit in governmental misdeeds.

There is no doubt room for an effort to reduce governmental corruption; it is just not clear when the public will put its weight behind any such effort. An earnest anticorruption movement will probably have to combine governmental housecleaning with a review of what the public expects its government to do. That time will have arrived, perhaps, when the public also takes a serious interest in corruption in the much larger private sector.


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