Why the Worst Get on Top: Corruption in Democracies

In “The Road to Serfdom”, Friedrich Hayek argues that leaders who dominate totalitarian regimes are willing to “do what it takes” to rule, with rent-seeking competition for leadership positions resulting in the worst contestant winning. Democratic regimes, with less power at the center and fewer functions under state control, tend to offer smaller “prizes” to the political contest’s winner. But both democratic and totalitarian processes are rent-seeking games, though played by different rules. Corruptible politicians become lower-cost competitors even in democracies because they do not feel there are psychic costs to breaking rules. In addition, they accrue more from winning elections because they are willing to line their own pockets. Thus, they have
stronger incentives to invest in campaigns for election or reelection to office and not only “bid” more for office (by investing in more electioneering effort) but also stand to benefit from changing the rules of the game that increase the winner’s prize by diminishing the democratic process. The main takeaway is that it is not only in dictatorships but also in democracies that there is a propensity for “the worst get on top.” (Coats, R. Morris, Jeremy T. Schwartz, and Gökhan Karahan. “Why the Worst Get on Top: Corruption in Democracies.” The Independent Review 23, no. 2 (2018): 267–81.)