In one country in the book The Elenium by David Eddings, in order to prevent corruption the politicians would be imprisoned from when they begin office until they die. The logic being that what ever they do will have no effect on their life. (I assume that their powers were unable to alter conditions in that prison or change that rule. They were also forced into office against their will.)

I want to come up with other ways to prevent corruption, both legal and illegal forms (mostly the former). As with the example this is for a fantasy society so I'm not worried about culture changes.

Are there any other effective ways to prevent corruption?

For me the perfect solution would be that they:

  • Do not have any self interest.
  • Cannot be bribed or threatened.
  • Do not care either way what the public think of them or their policies.
  • Have as much power over the country as possible.
  • Are able and willing to act in the best interest of the country both practically and morally.
  • Do not favour any part of society.
  • Morality of treatment of politicians would be a bonus but not essential.

Ideally non-elected as elected officials will only be appointed if they serve the interests of the majority. Which is just open source corruption.

  • $\begingroup$ What legal and illegal forms do you mean? Bribery and outright stealing, or something more subtle? $\endgroup$
    – Dallaylaen
    Commented Mar 7, 2016 at 20:07
  • $\begingroup$ Are you interested in the corruption of politicians only, or also in the corruption of the administration and/or the economic corruption (for example corrupting the CEO of a company to make him take decision at your advantage) ? $\endgroup$
    – Kolaru
    Commented Mar 7, 2016 at 23:17
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    $\begingroup$ I think you mean that the outcome of the politicians period of office would determine the effect on their life. As far as I remember, the only reason that they were imprisoned was to stop them avoiding the nomination as in, they get nominated then jailed. The whole point of this was that their life savings/livelihood was put into the treasury, and the country had to make a true profit for him/her to get money back, without them raising the taxes $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 17, 2016 at 14:42

7 Answers 7


Maybe exiling politicians. They will live in a friendly country but have no power over the land they live in. They will pass whatever laws they see fit and have no personal interest.

  • $\begingroup$ Right up until they raise an army and invade - after having disbanded their original country's army. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 26, 2016 at 17:50
  • $\begingroup$ @WhatRoughBeast Don't all governments have this problem. There is nothing to stop the US government disbanding the US army and siphoning funds and hardware into a private army to make themselves dictators. It is very much an everything or nothing approach to corruption. But it would prevent low level stuff such as lowing the tax rates that apply to you. $\endgroup$
    – Hoofing
    Commented Mar 26, 2016 at 22:08

Light Is The Best Disinfectant

Make politicians wear live-streaming devices 24/7, and make the law that all business done with a politician is a matter of public record. Pay the politicians handsomely for the inconvenience (comparable to a CEO, for instance), but absolutely do not ever, ever, let them make secret deals.

This would mean that even non-real-time communications like email would be public, and that there is no distinction between "public" and "private" communications for this person. Even conversations between family members would be public record. It goes without saying that all financial transactions involving the politician and his immediate family would also need to be public, and that this would have to be true for life, not just while serving in office. This would defeat the revolving-door mechanism whereby corporations pay for public service with after-office "consulting" gigs.

On the flip side, all individuals and corporations that give anything to a lawmaker, judge or top administrator would also need to disclose the gift publicly and make their identity public. If a corporation gives a gift, all executive officers of the corporation and all other corporations which own a significant stake in the company are considered donors for reporting purposes. This defeats shell companies making anonymous donations. Any company with hidden ownership is forbidden from doing business with a politician.

No Other Rules (Almost)

The trick is to simply not forbid anything. Let anyone bribe politicians in any way they like, including foreign nationals. As long as it is a matter of public record, the electorate will decide if each lawmaker is acting in their best interests or not.

Snap Elections

However, in order to allow the public to truly police their gov't, it must be possible to remove bad actors very quickly. A recall election can be held for any officeholder for any reason if at least $\sqrt{electorate}$ votes are obtained in a recall petition. The Federal Election Commission would publish the threshold on a regular basis.


Would anyone take this deal? It would be the ultimate invasion of privacy. It would turn every Congressman into a reality TV star. They would demand exceptions, for going to the bathroom, having private time with their spouse/family/etc. But these exceptions are exactly when abuses would occur. The real problem is when they are being exposed to secret information (i.e., national security secrets). There is no foolproof way to guarantee that private actors don't try to do business with them during this time. But I don't see any other solution.

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    $\begingroup$ What prevents the politician from drowning observers in detail. Get thousands of communications and write hundreds page long laws so the public doesn't have time to dig though and find the important stuff. He can set up a system to communicate secretly before elected so there will be no record how he does it. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 7, 2016 at 21:26
  • $\begingroup$ Then the media steps in. Just two or three lawyers would be more than enough to sift through all that junk, to find the real deal. Then, the 'drowning' stuff would be public records, but 'footnoted', while the important stuff is placed under a magnifying glass. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 7, 2016 at 22:49
  • $\begingroup$ This would make having descendants trickier. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 8, 2016 at 0:29
  • $\begingroup$ Oh, and loop hole: A cooperation gives you stuff before you become a politician. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 8, 2016 at 0:29
  • $\begingroup$ A pre-arrangement is possible, but difficult to enforce. It would be very easy for the private actor to renege after the benefits are bestowed, and the politician knows this. These deals work best when the politician can make direct and interactive threats while in office. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 8, 2016 at 21:38

I don't see how either of those ideas would prevent corruption.

Imprisoned: There's plenty of corruption in prisons today: Inmates getting drugs, weapons, prostitutes, and other contraband smuggled in, etc. Presumably by definition politicians have political power, so it's hard to see how you would prevent them from using this power to benefit themselves, even in prison.

If the prison is uncomfortable enough, then the only people who would want to be politicians are people who are willing to put up with hardship for the sake of an ideal, or for the thrill of power. I'd think the last thing we want to encourage in politicians is extremism and lust for power.

Isolation: How does that prevent corruption? Someone could still use his power to live in luxury. I suppose if done rigorously enough this would prevent politicians from having friends in the general population, for whom they'd want to twist the law. I worry about politicians making corrupt laws to benefit their friends, but I worry more about them making corrupt laws to benefit people who pay them bribes.

I also worry about politicians having utopian or extremist ideological agendas, that is, ideas of how to build some utopian society that don't work in the real world. I'm certainly not the first to say that politicians today often live in a bubble of wealth and power, isolated from the common people, and so they don't even see it when their utopian schemes don't work in practice. When the problems they cause are pointed out, they dismiss it as minor problems on the way to their grand vision, or reactionaries trying to sabotage their grand vision. Isolating them even more would make this worse.

That said: Many people have struggled for thousands of years to find ways to prevent corruption in politics, and while I suppose some have found a measure of success, clearly no one has solved the problem. I don't suppose that I or anyone else on this board is likely to have the ultimate solution.

But here are some ideas that have been kicked around:

Democracy: Make politicians be elected by the people, as in a republic, rather than inheriting the job from their parents, like kings and nobles, or being selected by the party in power, like in communist countries and other single-party systems. While the system has a lot of flaws, it does mean that politicians whose corruption becomes too extreme and too obvious can be voted out.

Tough anti-corruption laws: Certainly can help. But politicians make the laws, and they are always going to find ways to put in loopholes for themselves and their friends. Indeed, in practice anti-corruption laws often become a source of corruption themselves. For example, here in the U.S. we have campaign finance laws that were passed with the claim that they were going to fight the influence of big money on politics. I was an officer in a Political Action Committee for a while, and I quickly saw that these rules had become a political tool. Competing groups got laws passed that put limits on how much donors who supported their opponents were allowed to contribute while exempting donors who supported themselves. Rules were structured to benefit incumbents at the expense of challengers. I heard one debate in Congress where Senators openly said that the purpose of a proposed new rule was to prevent people from running TV ads criticizing members of Congress. Etc. While in theory anti-corruption laws mean that corrupt politicians are thrown in jail, in practice they often mean that the most corrupt politicians get their political opponents thrown in jail, often on trumped up charges and technicalities.

Term limits: The idea is to limit how much of someone's life he could be a politician, so that no one could spend his whole life as a politician. He would serve for a while, make laws, and then have to go back home and live under those laws. The idea has largely failed because the politicians make the laws, and they've managed to tailor term limits so that while they limit how long one can hold any particular office, the politician can always just move on to another office. When that fails, they become a lobbyist. I think an interesting idea would be to say that no person can hold elected office for more than a total of 10 years (or whatever exact number), all offices combined. So every politician would have to go back to being a private citizen. Sure, some would manage to become lobbyists or political consultants, and so continue to spend their lives in politics. But I think it would be hard for ALL of them to do so. And yes, it would mean that truly honest and able politicians would be forced out. But I think that's a price worth paying.

Part-time government. Have the legislature in session for only a couple of months a year, so the legislators get together, pass laws, and then go home and have to live under the laws they made. Note this is not the same as term limits. A person could still be a politician his whole life. He just can't be a politician every day of the year.

Limited government: No matter how willing a politician is to accept a bribe, for corruption to exist there have to be people willing to pay bribes. (Or engage in other forms of corruptions. Let me just use "bribes" here as shorthand for all forms of corruption.) People are willing to pay bribes when the government has a lot of power to help or hurt them. If the government is passing regulations that will have a huge impact on an industry, big companies in that industry have very good reason to want to have those rules tailored to benefit them: subject their competitors to every possible restriction and inconvenience while they are exempt. If the government is handing out billions of dollars in subsidies, every big-money interest wants to get their hand in the pot. When taxes are high, everyone wants an exemption or deduction for himself. Etc. But if the government is limited, if, say, all it does is enforce basic laws against murder and kidnapping and stealing, and maybe provides some basic infrastructure services like roads and sewers, then there's little reason for anyone to want to pay a bribe. There's nothing to bribe the government official to do, because he has little power to do anything for you or to you.

Personally, I think limited government is the only practical way to truly attack corruption. As long as there are lots of people out there who want to influence government decisions, they'll find a way to do it, legally or illegally.

  • $\begingroup$ You talk about forcing politicians to live under the laws they make. I was wondering why you thought this as I assumed that this is the opposite of what you want. They know what life they will live and pass laws that benefits themselves. $\endgroup$
    – PStag
    Commented Mar 7, 2016 at 1:45
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    $\begingroup$ @PStag I was thinking, Force them to live under the same laws that apply to everyone else. But sure, things like term limits may be inadequate if the politicians have enough foresight to pass laws that will benefit themselves in the life they plan to lead after leaving politics. Like a politician planning to, say, open a flower shop in Toledo could be sure to put clauses in laws that say "... all businesses (except flower shops) ..." and "... exemptions: businesses located in designated Special Economic Districts ... Special Economic Districts: Toledo ..." etc. This is exactly the sort of ... $\endgroup$
    – Jay
    Commented Mar 7, 2016 at 14:44
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    $\begingroup$ ... thing they do in the tax code. I read an article by a tax lawyer once where he mentioned coming across a provision for a special tax break for any company that transported goods between Texas and New Mexico by trucks and planes, but that did not own these trucks and planes, and I forget the details, about ten conditions. He said his first thought was, No point even getting into this, no way any of my clients meet all the conditions. But then he got curious and did some research and found that only one company had ever met all the conditions, and that was the year the law was passed. Hmm. $\endgroup$
    – Jay
    Commented Mar 7, 2016 at 14:46
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    $\begingroup$ One method used by the EU commission that you don't mention is that they pay well even after you are no longer active. This assures the official isn't dependent of the lucrative board positions corporations and other organizations give to politicians that have proved their "competence" by making decisions the corporation or group agrees with for his retirement. In general making officials financially independent of interest groups has been a major goal for several centuries. Many officials used to be unpaid part-timers from local community. Didn't work out that well. (YMMV, naturally) $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 8, 2016 at 1:50
  • $\begingroup$ @VilleNiemi Oh, good point, yes, at least back to Nicolo Machievelli analysts have suggested paying government officials high salaries to make them less tempted to take bribes. I'd be interested to see if anyone has evidence that this works. Human greed is pretty much unlimited. People are always saying, If only I had $X I'd be satisfied, but then they get there and they still want more. It's not enough to have a yacht, I need a bigger yacht. I need one for the west coast and one for the east coast. Etc. I suppose it could make them immune to small bribes. $\endgroup$
    – Jay
    Commented Mar 8, 2016 at 13:46

Tax voting

I've said this previously, but it seems relevant here. The idea behind tax voting is that we currently separate ownership and responsibility when it comes to taxes and spending. One person benefits from the spending and an entirely different person pays for it. What if we unified these? People could allocate their own tax money to whatever budgetary categories they wanted.

Taxpayers would have the same specificity over the money as the current legislature. So if it can appear as a line item in the budget now, you can specify to that line item. Or leave it to the discretion of the executive in charge of that portion of the budget. The defense secretary is the example that I know, but presumably there are sub-buckets of defense for which others are directly responsible. For a more concrete example, you should be able to specify that money goes to the FBI specifically rather than the Justice Department generally.

How is this relevant to corruption? A major reason for corruption is the power of spending. If you reduce the power of politicians to spend, then there is less reason to corrupt them.

Bar incumbents from campaigning

Incumbents routinely outraise challengers. One reason is that it is more effective. If someone contributes to a challenger, the contributor may never see a result. Contributing to an incumbent gives all the advantages of contributing to a challenger plus the immediate benefit of improved goodwill with the incumbent. That's already halfway to corruption. If incumbents couldn't campaign and fundraise, then that wouldn't happen.

The great problem of corruption in campaign finance is the difficulty of proving "quid pro quo", that is to say, money for something in return. But what if we tightened the rules? What if an incumbent could not accept any campaign contributions. That gets rid of the hardest part to prove.

In such a world, politicians would serve one term and then go back to the private sector. If they wanted, they could then start fundraising for a new office. A year or two later they might be back in office and barred from fundraising again. So contributors would have to corrupt challengers and rely on them staying corrupt while in office. This would make finances less important, reducing the need for campaign spending. And making it less likely that a candidate would have to do anything in order to win.

Draft representatives

We elect representatives. For example, in the US, there are 435 Representatives in the House. But they aren't particularly representative of voters. Around forty percent are lawyers, compared to .6% of the general population. They have above average incomes (about six times the average).

Data: http://www.measureofamerica.org/113-congress-infographic/

So what if we randomly drafted people to serve three year terms as representatives? In the US, we could still elect Senators and Presidents. During the first year, they could learn the system. During the second year, they could vote on issues. During the third year, they would continue to vote, would be eligible for leadership positions, and would train the new first years. They would avoid the entire corruption involved in getting elected in the first place and in staying in office once elected.

Ban incumbents from other sources of income

Some incumbents have income from outside sources, e.g. investments, businesses, etc. What if we banned all of that? Incumbents could only invest in blind trusts through approved investment managers. Then they couldn't tailor their voting patterns to benefit their own holdings. They wouldn't know what those holdings might be.

This would also block another avenue of corruption. What if someone subsidizes a politician's business or investment? Absent the difficult to prove "quid pro quo", this is legal under current law. Under this reform, politicians wouldn't know their holdings, so people couldn't offer to subsidize them.



Well, computer software to be more specific.

All politicians today are human beings. That's problematic. Humans do what benefit them. It's hard to understand humans.

So instead, we write programs to make decisions.

  • To prevent the programmer from being corrupt, we make it open source. Sure, the programmer could put evil in it, but then we can arrest the programmer and hire a new one, just by looking at the code.
    • The program should be deterministic, so that private citizens can run it and make sure the output matches. If there's a problem, everyone will know about it.
    • One idea is to have people vote on pull requests.
  • It does not actually need to be a program, just an algorithm. The computer is just there since computers are easier and less likely to err. See the above point about private citizens.
  • The robot should extensively log its internal state.
  • The robot will still have to deal with people most likely. Therefore, the political system should be designed to make it hard for them to influence it.
    • It should not rely on any one person or service for anything, especially information. Each person should also only interact with it in one way.
    • The algorithm will also spy on people, and try to detect corruption.
    • Even if it can't prove corruption, it should be able to shuffle in and out new people as it sees fit.
    • It should log all interactions with people, and have algorithms for detecting corruption.

First, who defines corruption? In most western democracies it is perfectly legal for a business to spend money to get tax breaks or changes in legislation easily worth ten times the money they spend. Since this is highly beneficial to politicians and the politicians decide what is legal or not, this is considered (by people directly benefiting from it) as an important part of how the system works instead of a form of corruption.

Second, corruption is not the disease, it is a symptom. The typical example is that in some countries the legal bureaucracy or tax burden of running a successful business is so high that the economy depends on little unofficial grease to operate. Another that used to be common is that being an official simply does not pay unless you take bribes. In general, corruption is a symptom of a system where being legit is penalized by the system more than being corrupt is.

For example lobbying is legal because there is essentially no penalty for doing it while not talking to lobbyist puts you into severe disadvantage when funding your re-election or planning your career after politics. It is essentially free money for the politicians.

Now the important part here is to note that since the corruption is a symptom of an imbalance in the system and nobody deliberately plans the system to be imbalanced, it arises naturally as a result of the evolution of the system and the society surrounding it, new forms of corruption unknown and unpreventable by your current solution will be constantly created. So you can't do a system that prevents future forms of corruption.

In fact more resorces you put to preventing the corruption, the more likely your anti-corruption solution will be to have imbalances of its own, and get corrupted itself. This might be mitigated by a very static society, such as fantasy theocracies.

Further corruption actually serves two useful functions. First, it adds flexibility to the system. It would be better if your system was matched to the society it serves, but having some unofficial grease in between until the system adapts is better than waiting for the politicians to wake up and reform the system, which would typically add decade or even several decades of lag. Second, it acts as a convenient pointer of where the unfixed imbalances in the system are.

For example lobbying is generally defended by the fact that it gives decision makers access to information they otherwise wouldn't. The imbalance here is that the ability of the government to collect unbiased information has been outpaced by the amount of information they would actually need to do their jobs properly. Eventually the need will be matched by an increase in the information gathering ability of the government, but until then lobbyists are better than working blind.

The example also points the real danger of corruption that you should focus on instead of trying to prevent it. It can become accepted as part of how the system works and become systemic. This will waste significant resources for indefinite periods of time. For example, targeted tax breaks bought by specific interest groups for their specific needs each add some degree of overhead to the tax system.

So while individually they are fairly harmless, possibly even beneficial, in aggregate they make the tax system and hence the public economy less efficient. And remember that the resources businesses spend on tax management is also fundamentally unproductive overhead. Routing profits thru Ireland or wherever may help the business dodge taxes, but it doesn't actually produce any real value while it does consume real resources.

So instead of preventing corruption, the focus should be detecting it, containing it to prevent it being systemic, recognizing the imbalance that creates it, and fixing the imbalance.

I think this would require a specific government agency for dealing with corruption that has the authority to not only investigate (search warrants, arrests, interrogations), but to contain any corruption it detects by making deals for non-prosecution in exchange of full cooperation and monetary compensation and make specific policy recommendations to fix detected issues directly to the legislature without interference from administration. Such agency would need high degree of independence in both operation and funding.

It would also need the ability meaningfully oversee even the elected representatives. Many countries have independent bodies that occasionally point out that what the politicians do doesn't really make sense, but politicians rarely care. The way elections work the odds of facts of some specific issue being relevant to your re-election are fairly remote. If the topic goes "viral" you can backtrack without any real cost and most topic never do, so mostly politicians have no real accountability on whether their actions are based on facts or make sense.

So to really get rid of corruption you would need to adjust the entire system. And keep continuously doing so as the society evolves. Transparency and accountability are the points to start, but you also need a process for continuous political, social, and economic reform. And on that we are still bit short on knowing how to do it. Current solutions are fairly inefficient.

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    $\begingroup$ Sorry for the quality of the post BTW. My brain does not seem to work at full capacity at the moment. The basic outline is something I have spent time thinking when my brain was working, so it should be okay. Will do fixes later when brain is working better. (Or anyone is welcome to fix typos and stuff if they wish, I won't mind.) $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 8, 2016 at 1:41

Jay has outlined most of the issues in trying to prevent corruption in government, so rather than try to extend his comprehensive list, I would suggest the real issue is that of incentives.

Everyone follows incentives, and in the halls of power, you have access to far more resources than even the wealthiest of plutocrats or kings. Consider, Apple has amassed a dragon's hoard of 35 billion USD since its inception, which is held offshore to escape the tax bite of the US government. The US Federal Government spends something on the order of 6.9 million dollars a minute, meaning they can spend the entire accumulated cash holdings of Apple Inc in about three and a half days (probably faster, the 6.9 million/minute was based on a quickly googled 2011 news article).

So removing the perceived need to spend this amount of money is the first step. Eliminating duplicate programs, carving off overlapping programs and departments and even (in the case of the United States) carefully considering the Constitutional limits of government power with what each Federal bureaucracy does and eliminating ones which do not fall under the remit of the Constitution would get rid of huge areas where grifters can flock to access power and influence, as well as cutting Federal spending by massive amounts, to the point that the Government would not consume the equivalent of Apple Inc every 3 days.

Without the potential incentives, then people looking for opportunities for graft and corruption will have to go elsewhere. So long as ALL levels of government are committed to the same holding pattern of limited government, then a potentially corrupt politician or bureaucrat can't simply become a State senator or alderman to look for rakeoffs.

Of course for this to happen will take an amazing amount of willpower and discipline. Voters have been enticed to vote for "Freestuff" for decades now, and offering Bread and Circuses have been known as great ways to maintain political power for centuries. There is a large and powerful crony capitalist and bureaucratic class which feeds off the taxpayer, and who will defend their perques and privileges to the last taxpayer, so we won't even get there without a massive fight (the TEA Party movement in the United States is only the start).

The rewards are potentially vast, however. In Canada, it is estimated that the average family of four will pay between 40-45% of their income in taxes and government fees, so even a 10% reduction in spending would be equal to a 10% pay raise for most Canadians. Figures for the US and European nations would be interesting to see in this context, and if that idea could be harnessed, then maybe there would be the political will to elect the sort of people who would strip down government and lead to a condition where the incentives for corruption are lowered.


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