Why are city politics so corrupt?

It is a commonplace that the politics of cities is often dominated by bribery and machine politics. The question is why is this? Several answers present themselves, including insufficient political competition (cities are uniformly Democratic), lower social cohesion (as every ethnic group and cultural tribe wants its slice of the pie), or simple proximity of spending and contractors, making it more likely for sweetheart deals to get done.

My theory is that cities are more welfare-state-like, with high taxes and generous handouts and government spending. This larger government, coupled with the higher density of interest groups that form in ethnic enclaves and business groups, leads to politically-connected insiders getting goodies for their tribe and skimming a little off the top.

(Yes I’m sure you can pull up corruption scandals anywhere in the country, but while such scandals do happen in Podunk County, they’re big news and therefore rare, while it’s practically the norm in urban areas. When the left-wing writers of The Wire treat it as a commonplace, it’s a commonplace.)

Have you ever been involved in city government/politics in any way, personally? The fact that a lot of cities are essentially one-party (usually Democrat) towns doesn`t limit competition at all. Things tend to be very personal and vicious because there’s no substantive differences but they’re definitely not lacking in political competition.

I completely disagree with your supposition that Podunk County is less corrupt. City governments aren’t more “welfare state” at all, but they are inherently slightly larger than rural government. In my experience there’s a fair amount of corruption in all local politics but cities are more likely to have “scandals” because there’s more money involved, more people involved, and more journalists involved.

By the by, I think your argument that something being big news means it’s therefore rare is also invalid.

Your assumption that welfare states are more corrupt, and your suggestion that wellfare states are associated with ‘free handouts’ leads me to belief that you don’t really have the slightest idea what a wellfare state entails. If all of this were true, wouldn’t all of continental Europe, where they have deeply entrenched wellfare states (though absolutely not as deeply entrenched as in the 1980s) be hopeleslly mired in corruption?

I can’t claim to know whether the base assertion is correct (though I would assume it to be so), but essentially there are going to be a few reasons:

  1. Most of the populace doesn’t pay much attention to local politics. They fight more over who should be president than they do over who should be the head of the school board, even though the latter probably has more impact on them. Without this interest, there isn’t as much general oversight.

  2. Sayre’s Law

  3. These are small fry politicians. You see the same thing in the business world. The manager of the food court at your local mall is probably a pretty slimy guy while as the guy who owns the company which owns the mall is probably a pretty nice and reasonable guy. Most likely when things started off, the one low manager was a pretty decent sort, but due to Sayre’s law and realizing that he’s not going to get any hire in the command structure, he starts to obsess more about what he has and how to get more out of it. People who have a future higher up don’t need to go around clawing for extra scraps.

Absolutely not. Larger government expenditure allow more corruption, but there are numerous factors that play into whether people actually take advantage of those opportunities. For one thing most countries in Western Europe have more social cohesion than American cities.

Cities reputations for corruption and graft pre-date their current high levels of welfare spending. I suspect the real reason is simply because cities, more or less by definition, tend to be where large amounts of people, power and liquid money are concentrated, and so there’s a lot more things to be corrupt about.

A small town in New Hampshire may have corruption, but it’s unlikely to involve millions of dollars, high level politicians and hundreds of people simply because there isn’t enough money/people/government infrastructure to support those sorts of things in a small town.

Hence the well known social welfare systems in such places as Somalia, Myanmar, Iraq, Haiti,Uzbekistan, Tonga, Sudan, Chad, Afghanistan, Laos, Guinea, Equatorial Guinea, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, right? This list, in addition to the highly admired level of quality of life their governments provide are also listed by Forbes magazine as the most corrupt governments on Earth.

Ok, you don’t like social welfare. I got it. But don’t just invent stuff to back up your position. You don’t like it. Vote against it. Campaign against it, but just popping off silly crap like this is an insult to the board, to the concept of the welfare of its citizens being a duty of government, and to non democrats that you assume are stupid enough to just swallow this bull.


I live in a Detroit suburb. They can teach you about corruption. They have tuned it to an art form. Mayors in jail, deputy mayors, police taking bribes and paying endless suits for brutality, school fund disappearing and slush funds becoming a piggy bank. It is ugly and has been for decades.
Of course our mayor got jaiil tme when the cable bribing began a few years ago.

You’re letting your personal politics really, really, REALLY get in the way. To the point of blindness.

  1. Canadian cities have the same problems and aren’t universally run by any particular party. Indeed, party politics generally aren’t official at all at the municipal level; you don’t run as a member of a party when running for mayor or councillor. And yet city corruption here is widespread. Why is that, if we don’t have a Democratic Party running the cities?

  2. The notion of “Ethnic enclaves” resulting in corruption is quite silly as well, since there’s no evidence that larger, multiethnic cities are any worse run than small, generally more ethnically homogenous cities. You claim it’s more the norm in larger cities, but I simply don’t buy that. It’s certainly not the experience of anyone I know.

  3. The idea that cities are corrupt because they’re welfare states is preposterous. Cities spend a miniscule fraction of their budget on such things. Cities spend a FAR greater proportion of their budget on no-doubt-about-it necessities, like cops, fire departments, roads, sewers et al. than do state and federal government. If being a welfare state was a determinant of corruption (a connection you haven’t even explained) then municpal governments should be the least corrupt governments in the world.

If you’re interested in real answers and discussion as opposed to just bashing the political positions you dislike, I’m going to go with two reasons:

  1. Sage Rat’s point about municipal politicans being small fry. Let’s be perfectly honest; the people who get elected to city council are the ones who aren’t smart enough to get elected to a state (or here, provincial) legislature. It’s purely anecdotal, but I’ve had occasion to meet many municipal politicians. All were vain, crude, selfish, and in the majority of cases, remarkably stupid. In events where I’ve seen municipal politicians togethers with provincial and federal politicians, it was like inviting monkeys to a state dinner. Upper echelon politicians can be evil and dishonest but they’re not, from what I have been, anywhere near as dumb, crude and outright corrupt as the city politicians. They simply can’t be; they aren’t bright enough to compete at that level.

  2. Corruption is simply easier at the municipal level, because there’s fewer layers of management, and less distance, between the politician and the pork. You get corruption at other levels of government but at the municipal level it’s much easier. Toronto a few years ago had a scandal where a computer contract ballooned by about 800% in planned cost and a city official was taking bribes in envelopes stuffed with money. In state or federal politics, there’s more bureaucracy between the people at the top and the spending of the money. It’d be harder to directly funnel money straight from municipal spending into your own pockets, even in a state or province with fewer people than the City of Toronto.

To reiterate, I believe that having more money flowing through the government increases the potential for corruption, but many many other factors influence whether people take advantage of those opportunities. And it’s not just welfare spending - someone has to fix the potholes and so on, and there will be competition for those contracts.

First of all, diversity reduces social cohesion, which leads to both less concern for communal well-being and less concern with policing those in power (since the return to an individual for exposing any single instance of corruption is probably less than one cent.) Furthermore the existence of distinct political clades, including ethnic interest groups, means that more energy will be spent clamoring over who gets what slice of the pie, rather than ensuring good governance.

I can assure you that to whatever extent this is true, it exists in small towns just as well.

Broken link.

Hmm, google “E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-first Century” by Robert Putnam. Also see wiki.

Oh sweet Jesus, this is true! And, athelas, the ones in my experience happened to be Republicans and I was (Mea culpa!) charged with getting them elected. Which I, in part, (Mea maxima culpa!) did.

ETA: After getting a wife abuser (in my favor, it came out several years later) and an arrant airhead (that was obvious from Day One) elected I swore off politics for another 20 years.

ETAA: From my experience with the breed, you don’t start getting candidates who are not borderline-retarded until you are getting candidates for the House. The Senate attracts better, but even many candidates for the Presidency would lose in a MENSA test vs the average Doper. Politicians, as a group, really are that dumb.

I’m gonna be a bit of a stick in the mud here and say that I’d bet damned good money the average Presidential candidate is a LOT smarter than the average Doper.

Come visit Dublin. Our city politicians wrote the book on corruption… at a time when there was virtually no ethnic diversity. (I blame it on voter apathy.)

Incidentally, cite for social cohesion being greater in Europe than America?

Because cities cover small areas and therefore are easier to controll with handouts.

This fact is compounded by so few people vote in city elections.

If only 25% of elible voters will vote that means I only need to control 12.6% to control the city.

Finally people don’t care about city politics because it’s easier to get around them. Suppose I don’t like Chicago, I can simply move across the city line to Evanston. I get all the advantages of Chicago but none of the bother.

It’s harder to move out of a state (though it could be done), so people care more about state or national politics.

Corruption comes with no one to oversee things.

From the Wiki link later in the thread, it sounds like a fairly standard attempt to justify racism and other forms of bigotry. Bowling leagues count as social cohesion, but race hatred, religious persecution, ghettos and so on don’t count as a lack of cohesion? All sorts of “political clades” and ethnic groups existed back then; they just were allowed no say in matters and were treated poorly. Being oppressed by a rich white male Protestant Christian elite is not desirable, and that’s what “social cohesion” WAS back then.

Initially I’d question whether the premise is even true. It could well be the case that rural county government is more corrupt and simply doesn’t get caught. The entire “city corruption” meme could well just be sample bias (anytime we hear about corruption, it’s via the media, and cities tend to have stronger, more competitive media than podunkville).

Aside from that, city governments inherently have a lot more to do. Geographic property rights are much cleaner and more clear cut in underdeveloped areas. There’s a deed, and since the supply of land is effectively limitless, you can do whatever the hell you want. Compare to a city: any commercial activity is likely to have a whole set of externalities in the neighborhood that the city has to take into consideration when making plans. Or a public good like roads: while road building and traffic engineering is simple in sparsely populated areas, in cities simply changing the timing of a traffic light by ten seconds can mean the difference between free flow of traffic and a constant jam. Let alone balancing the needs of increased transportation with the necessity of dealing with dozens of property claims per block if you need to build a new road.

So city governments inherently have a much greater role in economic life. Lots of money flows through the municipal coffers. And since a decision made by a single mid level bureaucrat can mean a business or individual making or losing hundreds of thousands of dollars, there are ample opportunities and incentives for corruption to occur.