Here’s why remote state capitals are often more corrupt

May 16, 2013

Why are some capital cities more corrupt than others? Two recent economic working papers offer a novel theory — geography might be to blame. In particular, capitals that are more isolated from the rest of the state or country tend to be more corrupt.


The Minnesota State Capitol. We're not making any comments on its corruption level--this is just a neat photo. (AP Photo/Genevieve Ross)

The first NBER paper, written by Filipe R. Campante of Harvard Kennedy School and Quoc-Anh Do of Singapore Management University looks at state capitals in the United States and finds that "isolated capital cities are robustly associated with greater levels of corruption."

In particular, they measure a state's shadiness by looking at the number of federal convictions for public corruption between 1976 and 2002. As it turns out, this correlates reasonably well with a state capital's geographic remoteness from major population centers. We're looking at you, Springfield, Illinois and Pierre, South Dakota:

But why would this be? There are a couple of theories here. The authors found that state capitals located in remote areas tend to receive less newspaper and media coverage. What's more, voter knowledge about the goings-on in these isolated statehouses tends to be lower. And, as a result, voter turnout for state elections tends to be depressed.

By way of illustration, the authors compare two corruption scandals, one surrounding New York Senate Majority leader Joseph Bruno, and one around former House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi, in Massachusetts. The scandals seemed reasonably similar, but the Boston Globe and Boston Herald covered the DiMasi story more heavily than the New York Times, New York Daily News, and New York Post covered the Bruno story. Was that because Boston is a major population center while Albany is more remote? That's the theory, at least.

Interestingly, the authors also scrutinize one of the original rationales for locating so many state capitals away from population centers — which was the idea that they could be more independent of industry influence. As it turns out, this rationale doesn't seem to hold up. States with isolated capitals actually have higher levels of money in their campaigns.

So that's the United States. What about the rest of the world? In a separate paper, Carmante, Do, and Bernardo V. Guimaraes find a similar pattern in capital cities around the world — those that are more remote also tend to be more corrupt.

But since it's tougher to compare all the different countries of the world, many of which are at wildly different stages of development, the authors have to come up with a different theory to explain corruption here. Remote national capitals in developing countries, they argue, are safer from the threat of insurgencies, which can act as a constraint on corruption. Here's the idea:

Causality runs both ways: broader power sharing (associated with better governance) means that any rents have to be shared more broadly, hence the elite has less of an incentive to protect its position by isolating the capital city; conversely, a more isolated capital city allows the elite to appropriate a larger share of output, so the costs of better governance for the elite, in terms of rents that would have to be shared, are larger. We show evidence that this pattern holds true robustly in the data.

That's... a considerably more complicated argument.

In any case, the recommendations for the United States are vague but reasonable enough. "In terms of policy," they note, "one is led to conclude that extra vigilance might be needed, when it comes to polities with isolated capital cities, in order to counteract their tendency towards reduced accountability." Now as for ideas on how best to do that...

Update: Josh Keating at Foreign Policy also has a great discussion of these papers, and adds this smart point: " I wonder if part of the issue may be the ability to attract qualified — and not corrupt — civil servants. No offense to Albany or Abuja, but I'm guessing the governments based in Boston, or Denver, not to mention Paris and Tokyo, might have an easier time attacting the best and the brightest."

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Neil Irwin · May 16, 2013