Carlo Allegri / Reuters A Trump campaign stop in Kinston, North Carolina, October 2016.

Rational Kleptocracy

By Robert I. Rotberg

In her review of my book The Cor­ruption Cure (“Kleptocracy in America,” September/October 2017), Sarah Chayes suggests that we differ on whether corrupt endeavors are exercises of rational choice. In fact, I attribute the behavior of corrupt politicians and bureaucrats to “the often zero-sum expectations of their class and . . . condition,” a description that seems operationally the same as her definition of “contemporary corruption” as “the effective functioning of systems designed to enrich the powerful.”

The important point, on which Chayes and I agree, is that reducing or eradicating corruption depends on collective, not individual, change. Strong democratic leaders, such as Sir Seretse Khama, the first president of Botswana, and more authoritarian ones, such as Lee Kuan Yew, the first prime minister of Singapore, were able to move whole societies away from regarding corrupt practices as the norm. Similar transitions occurred in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Denmark, New Zealand, and Sweden— all now paragons of anticorruption.

As Chayes correctly writes, I say too little (because of when the book was written) about American kleptocratic practices and especially about the regres- sion of recent years toward the mean of Tammany Hall rather than that of President Theodore Roosevelt. But my book still has lessons to offer even for our own troubled and corrupt times.

Robert I. Rotberg

Founding Director, Program on Intrastate Conflict and Conflict Resolution, Harvard Kennedy School 

This site uses cookies to improve your user experience. Click here to learn more.

Continue