Corruption, Inequality, and the Rule of Law.

AuthorKrauss, Rebecca
PositionBook review

Corruption, Inequality, and the Rule of Law, by Eric M. Uslaner

Publisher: Cambridge University Press

Price: $95

Reviewed by: Rebecca Krauss and Benjamin Taibleson


"When I was 13 years old, I delivered a plain white envelope containing a $50 bill to the chief of police of Paterson, New Jersey."

Eric M. Uslaner begins Corruption, Inequality, and the Rule of Law by describing his memory of delivering a small bribe on his father's behalf. (1) It is a dramatic opening anecdote, and it suggests the author's fascination with corruption as the product of complicated and diverse human interactions. The senior Uslaner was motivated by a desire to increase business in his stationery store, and he perceived his offering as an act of good faith rather than a contribution to endemic corruption. His son, however, uses the story to introduce an empirical evaluation of corruption writ large in support of a sweeping descriptive theory of its causes. The tension between these two forms of analysis - one anecdotal, (2) and the other empirical--is salient throughout the book. It underlies the failure of some of Uslaner's central claims, but also speaks to the book's latent strengths.

In the chapters that follow, Uslaner proposes a novel and analytically appealing account of the relationship between trust, inequality, and corruption, which form what he terms the "Inequality Trap." (3) He describes this theory, and the global empirical analysis that he uses to test it, in the book's first three chapters. The next five chapters examine individual countries - post-Soviet transition countries (Romania in particular), African nations, Hong Kong and Singapore, and the United States. These case studies combine some country-specific empirical analysis with textured descriptions of each country's unique cultural, political, and historical characteristics. Most of these countries do not seem to have succumbed to the Inequality Trap, and Uslaner introduces the case studies in an attempt to reconcile these outliers with his global theory. Finally, Uslaner concludes with ameliorative policy prescriptions, advocating enhanced social welfare programs as a way out of the Inequality Trap.

Uslaner's global empirical model tackles a set of issues (including trust and corruption generally) that defy precise definition and measurement, and his approach and conclusions are accordingly both fascinating and problematic. Although his worldwide measurements of phenomena like "out-group trust" are exciting contributions to development scholarship, he often uses dubious proxy measures and seems, at times, impatient with his own data and analysis. The book's overarching weakness, however, is larger, more serious, and even acknowledged, if half-heartedly, by the author: the global empirical results simply do not support his descriptive theory of corruption.

Instead, in Uslaner's narrative, anecdotal accounts of corruption are often more compelling than his empirical models. (4) Unlike his global Inequality Trap theory, these accounts are distinctively local and can take into consideration a state's history, culture, population composition, and other subtle characteristics. His analysis of New Jersey is a good example: although Uslaner goes to great pains to distinguish between petty and grand corruption in his broad empirical analysis, his opening paragraphs tell a story that links the petty corruption he witnessed as a child to the multimillion-dollar graft of Patterson officials decades later - a single, linear tradition of dishonest New Jersey government, reflected in its unique "anecdotal" history.

Uslaner addresses one of development's most fundamental problems, and while he fails to fully accomplish his goals, his theory and empirical analysis advance the field. The problems Uslaner faces in finding measures for his key variables and aggregating them across nations are endemic to comparative empirical analyses of corruption, and do not nullify his contribution to the literature. Instead, they suggest a perhaps inevitable recourse to local, "anecdotal" accounts of corruption. (5)


    Uslaner's central thesis is that high inequality leads to low trust in members of different social groups (low "out-group" trust), which in turn...

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