The Corruption Debates: Left vs. Right—and Does It Matter—in the Americas

Clay G. Wescott | 04 August 2021
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Book Review

The Corruption Debates: Left vs. Right—and Does It Matter—in the Americas
Stephen D. Morris
Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers. 2021.

This innovative project focuses on three questions: Is there a left/right/populist distinction to practices corruption/anticorruption? If so, is there a difference in the outcomes of anticorruption efforts of regimes following these different ideologies? Alternatively, are differences in approaches to corruption/anticorruption caused more by whether one is in power or out of power? 

An initial challenge is that corruption can mean so many different things. It can refer to both individual behavior and to flawed systems or institutions. It can be either legal and illegal. It oversteps boundaries ranging from written laws to ethical values to varying notions of public interest. It can arise from greed, the pursuit of desirable policies, or simply everyday survival. The use of the same term for so many different things reminds one of another concept: “illness”. Doctors don’t treat “illness”, they treat thousands of different illnesses. Corruption is similar, but splitting off different types, diagnosing and treating them, and evaluating outcomes is more difficult. To reflect this, Morris uses the term “corruption/anticorruption”, since the two are locked in a dialectic: how one understands the former determines how one constructs the latter. 

To address the first question, he defines leftist regimes as those supporting greater state intervention that prioritize values of equality and social justice that are not achieved through market forces alone.  Rightist regimes support limited state involvement in the economy, and rely on markets to achieve economic freedom. 

Morris looks at the records of left/right transitions in the Americas. Regimes on the right focus their anticorruption efforts on government officials unlawfully taking benefits for personal gain. In this view, corruption stems from incentives and distortions of market forces. Businesses are the victims of unlawful officials.  A classic formulation is Klitgaard’s (1988) notional formula: Corruption = Discretion + Monopoly – Accountability.  The solutions are checks and balances like transparency, merit-based recruitment and promotion of officials, and enforcing procurement rules, along with market-based policies such as deregulation, privatization and liberalization.  Much of the anticorruption work supported by international agencies working with developing countries focuses on this interpretation of corruption/anticorruption.

Regimes on the left focus less on the acts of individual officials, and more on systemic and structural features of politics, government and society  including inequality, exclusion and privileged access. In this view, the capitalist system is the problem. Businesses are the corrupt agents of rather than the victims, colluding with politicians to adopt a regime of legalized corruption. The solution is a deepening of democracy to enhance oversight of government policy and administration. The bureaucratic checks and balances mentioned above are also supported as part of the larger project of strengthening the state, while better regulating capitalist market forces. 

Populists can emerge on either the right or the left. They claim society is divided between the people and an elite that exploits them. They promise to fight corruption to thwart the corrupt elites and achieve the people’s will. Right wing populists may define “the people” with strict ethnic, racial and nationalistic boundaries, and elites as the political establishment or “deep state” that hands out benefits to immigrants and others not part of “the people”. They seek to dismantle government regulations and social programs, weaken technical expertise in government, and strengthen markets,  Left wing populists define the people more inclusively, and seek to dismantle the economic power of ruling oligarchs, thus freeing up resources for social justice and more widely shared prosperity. On either side of the spectrum, populists may be charlatans, weaponizing anticorruption to undermine institutional checks and balances, threaten democracy, and redirect corrupt proceeds to their own cronies.

Using this framework, Morris looks at countries in the Americas that have had changes in the left/right orientations of government since 2005. While focusing on case studies of  Mexico, the USA, Brazil, Venezuela and Argentina, he also considers available data on many other jurisdictions. He concludes that there are both differences and overlaps in the ways different regime types approach corruption/anticorruption. In terms of outcome, leftist and rightist regimes have each had some success depending on the measure used, but overall progress is disappointing. He finds that a better metric than right/left for understanding approaches is whether a regime is in power or out of power.  Politicians out of power tend to rail against the corruption of those in power. Once in power, the former group starts out implementing checks and balances promised during their electoral campaigns to “clean out the swamp”. But once the first big corruption scandal hits, the group in power becomes defensive, and may expand their own swamp to become similar or worse than that of their predecessor. 

This is an original approach to understanding corruption/anticorruption. Being limited to the Americas, there are both similarities and differences in context that make cross national comparisons illuminating. It would be valuable to explore whether the same approach could be used in other regions. 

Another aspect that could be added in the future is to look at the role of transnational systems in supporting corruption, and thwarting anticorruption. Under both corruption visions of the right or the left, there are beneficiaries of corrupt income that want to protect it from prying eyes. A global industry has arisen to support this: enablers of corruption supporting offshore accounts that perform important services without asking questions,  such as officials in Jersey Islands that  disguise the ownership behind shell companies, with entities layered like Russian “Matryoshka” dolls across jurisdictions. Danish bankers set up and accept funds for accounts for these companies, London brokers provide passports from desirable countries, New York and Miami real estate agents help convert laundered funds into legal titles of luxury condos, law firms in London threaten to sue publishers about to disclose information on these transactions, state sponsored assassins threaten or kill whistle-blowers, and officials in Nevis and other small countries offer positions representing the country as Consuls, and in international organizations offering diplomatic immunity. This web of enablers gets money out of the dodgy country, and sets it up as legal property protected in places of good rule of law. The use of shell companies makes it difficult to identify the ultimate owner of the assets.  The new passports allow the corrupt parties to more easily visit places to enjoy his/her legal assets, and diplomatic immunity prevents almost any legal action against the corrupt person in the country where s(he) sets up “diplomatic” residence. British defamation law provides the basis for a credible threat of high legal expenses to defend publications documenting the above steps, even if the eventual decision of the court would favor the disclosing party. The laws of many countries may provide a narrow definition of illicit funds, a short statute of limitations, and a high standard of proof that funds meet these legal requirements  before taking action to seize such funds. This normally requires documentary evidence from governments where the criminal theft took place; such governments may be so compromised by corrupt practices that they are unable to provide such evidence (Bullough 2019). Protection of illicit funds is also enabled by consultants such as McKinsey, Boston Consulting Group, Deloitte, Ernst & Young and Price Waterhouse Coopers. Although they have the same requirement as banks to report suspicious transactions to the European Union and other authorities, these requirements may not be enforced (Forsythe et al 2020).

The measures Morris discusses focus on ‘individual countries’, and don’t mention the impact on the offshore enablers, which in turn limits the impact of the domestic/individual country actions. There have been efforts to address these anomalies. In 2007/8, a whistleblower complaint led to US prosecution of and fines assessed of Swiss banks for practices that hid the identity of private banking clients and facilitated tax evasion. The adoption of the US Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act adopted in 2010 forced Swiss banks to change these practices, and they lost a big share of their international clients. Under the common reporting standard adopted in 2014 by many developed countries, signatories agreed to share information on the assets that each other’s residents held in each other’s banks. Although this and other measures reduced the funds held in secret accounts in Jersey Islands and other tax havens, there were loopholes. Countries choose what places to report to that they think are sufficiently honest and competent to use the information correctly; for this and other reasons, Switzerland only shares data with nine other countries, none of which are the developing countries that are the source of large illicit funds. In addition, the US doesn’t follow the common reporting standard. The US Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act requires countries to share information with the US, but doesn’t work the other way. This has opened up opportunities for US states like Nevada, Delaware, South Dakota and Florida to adopt their own privacy rules that protect the identity of account holders in the same way Swiss banks did in the past. As always, money flows where it is treated best, and continues to evade authorities trying to combat tax evasion and corruption. This loophole may be addressed the Corporate Transparency Act adopted by the US Congress in 2021, which requires the Treasury to issue regulations within one year to require disclosure of beneficial owners of shell companies. 

Still much more remains to be done to address the global enabling system for corruption. Morris and other corruption/anticorruption scholars should address this in their future work.


Bullough, Oliver 2019. Moneyland. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Forsythe, Michael, Kyra Gurney, Scilla Alecci and Ben Hallman 2020. “How U.S. Firms Helped Africa’s Richest Woman Exploit Her Country’s Wealth”. New York Times. January 19.

Kiltgaard, Robert. 1988. Controlling Corruption. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Clay G. Wescott, President, International Public Management Network and he is also the member of international Advisory Board at Centre for Governance Studies (CGS).