Researcher finds power and corruption may be good for society

December 14, 2010

They are familiar scenes: politicians bemoaning the death of family values only for extramarital affairs to be unveiled or politicians preaching financial sacrifice while their expense accounts fatten up.

Moral and power asymmetries are pervasive in human societies, but as it turns out, that may not be such a bad thing.

Francisco Ubeda, an professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and Edgar Duéñez of Harvard University found that power and corruption may play a role in maintaining overall societal cooperation.

Using game theory, Ubeda and Duéñez looked at what causes individuals in society to cooperate even though those in charge display some level of corruption. They developed a model that allows individuals who are responsible for punishing noncooperators (e.g., law enforcers and government officials) to fail to cooperate themselves by acting in a corrupt manner. They also considered the possibility that these law enforcers, by virtue of their positions, are able to sidestep punishment when they are caught failing to cooperate.

What they found is that the bulk of society cooperates because there are law enforcers forcing them to stay in line. People tend to cooperate because they do not want to get punished.

Even if the law enforcers consider themselves above the law and behave in a corrupt way, overall societal cooperation is maintained – as long as there is a small amount of power and corruption. However, if the law enforcers have too much power and corruption runs rampant, overall societal cooperation breaks down.

Ubeda explained how it works:

"Law enforcers often enjoy privileges that allow them to avoid the full force of the law when they breach it. Law enforcing results in the general public abiding by the law. Thus law enforcers enjoy the benefits of a lawful society and are compensated for their law enforcing by being able to dodge the law," he said.

The researchers concluded that power and corruption benefit society; without law enforcers, individuals have less incentive to cooperate and without power and corruption, law enforcers have less incentive to do their job.

The researchers' findings have far-reaching implications. In biology, they may help explain corrupt behaviors in social insects. In economics, the findings may aid in formulating policies by providing insights on how to harness corruption to benefit society. In the field of psychology, the findings provide a justification to the correlation between power and corruption observed in humans.

Explore further: Study finds link between political corruption and FEMA money

More information: A report of their research is published in the journal Evolution and can be viewed online at

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not rated yet Dec 14, 2010
This seems to say that society can tolerate a certain amount of corruption, not that it's good for it. "may aid ... by providing insights on how to harness corruption to benefit society".

This summary doesn't seem to mention what happens if there was no corruption.
3 / 5 (4) Dec 14, 2010
This summary doesn't seem to mention what happens if there was no corruption.

I believe that would be called "Heaven".

Seriously though, if there was no evil and no corruption you wouldn't need law enforcement in the first place. The U.S. would instantly have at least 10% more GDP by the time you count the number of criminals that would not be in jail, and the number of law enforcement officers who would be working in some other field. This doesn't even count lawyers.
1 / 5 (2) Dec 14, 2010
This doesn't even count lawyers.

This reminds me of my favorite Dave Barry story, when he was running for president in 2000. He said his solution to the Iraq problem was to airdrop thousands of lawyers into Baghdad. If that wasn't enough, airdrop a second wave. If that failed, on the third wave, try giving them parachutes this time.
1.7 / 5 (6) Dec 14, 2010
"People tend to cooperate because they do not want to get punished."
This does not require police or govt.
Cliques do this all the time. It is called shunning.
5 / 5 (3) Dec 14, 2010
This article doesn't map well to the real world. People don't become cops so they can enjoy the benefits of corruption! Our problem is that the law MAKERS are corrupt, not just some of the law enforcers.
not rated yet Dec 15, 2010
Logically, the conclusion does not follow from the evidence presented in the article. "Not bad enough to cause system failure" is not equal to" good". You might apply similar fallacious logic to argue friction is good in an automobile engine because it causes heat that helps the lubricating oil flow more easily.

Also, applying "good" and "bad" implies there is some alternative to compare with. The false assumption is that without corruption and power there is no incentive for police and society will collapse without them. In reality there are many incentives for police to do their job and benefits of power and corruption exclude as opportunity costs many of them both in the aggregate and individually.
not rated yet Dec 15, 2010
You should look at the japanese society and their crime rates. It is all a matter of honor and education.
not rated yet Dec 16, 2010
Corruption just make laws look pathetic, you can always get what you want, as long as you have contacts and some money.
1 / 5 (2) Dec 16, 2010
our Kanadian cops - more like armed bouncers pick this profession for the high pay and lack of accountability. They can afford NOT be corrupt - incompetant for sure but when the heat make $90K plus it is hard to bribe these clowns.
1.8 / 5 (5) Dec 18, 2010
The reason we have a government is to ensure our freedoms - and that especially means freedom from abusive government. "That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed." "Just powers" don't include corruption, and you can read a nice list of corrupt practices in the Declaration of Independence. E.G., "He [King George] has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance."
5 / 5 (1) Dec 19, 2010
Agree with all comments above. The report fails to make the case that corruption is beneficial in any way for society. (good!)

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