The Roots of Corruption

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The Roots of Corruption:

Mass education, economic inequality and state building

Eric M. Uslaner

Department of Government and Politics

University of Maryland

College Park, MD 20742-7211


Senior Research Fellowship, Center for American Political Science and Law,

Southwest University of Political Science and Law, Chongqing, China

Bo Rothstein

The Quality of Government Institute

Department of Political Science

University of Gothenburg

Box 711, 405 30 Gothenburg


To be presented at the Workshop “Building State Capacity: The Other Side of Political Development” Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University, May 4-5, 2012

This is our second co-authored paper and in this paper we have reversed the order of authorship. Our contributions are equal. We would like to thank Sofia Jansson for excellent assistance for the section on religion and education in this article and David Sartorius for very helpful comments on early education in Latin America.

The roots of corruption are highly contested. We argue that there is a path dependence across almost a century and a half and present five theoretical arguments for the existence of a causal mechanism between universal education and control of corruption. We show a powerful statistical link between education levels in 1870 and corruption levels in 2010 for 78 countries, a relationship that remains strong even when controlling for change in the level of education, gross national product per capita, and democratic governance. Regime type is generally not significant. We then trace early education to levels of economic equality in the late 19th and early 21st centuries—and argue that societies with more equality educated more of their citizens, which then gave their citizens more opportunities and power, reducing corruption. We present historical evidence from Europe and Spanish, British, and French colonies that strong states provided more education to their publics—and that such states were themselves more common where economic disparities were smaller.

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