Too Crooked to be Good: Tradeoffs and the Punishment of Malfeasance

Sofia Breitenstein (UAB) – paper co-authored with Enrique Hernández (UAB)

21th of May, 13:00h, Sala de Juntes de la Facultat de Ciències Polítiques i Sociologia de la UAB.
The coexistence of harsh disapproval of corruption and the rather limited electoral consequences of malfeasant behavior is still a paradox in the social sciences. While elections are expected to be used as an instrument to hold politicians accountable, studies conducted in multiple countries indicate that voter’s punishment of malfeasant politicians is limited. One of the potential explanations for this paradox is that citizens trade integrity for competence in delivering outcomes when casting a vote. Previous studies have mostly assessed whether a politician’s competence in delivering outcomes moderates the negative effect of corruption on the vote. This paper focuses on voters’ priorities and assess what citizens treasure more: integrity or outcomes. We argue that examining a situation that poses a direct tradeoff between obtaining an optimal societal outcome and respecting the law is the best way to assess voters’ priorities. In this paper we assess citizens’ reactions to a politician that only obtains the optimal outcome by bypassing the established legal procedure. Drawing on an original survey experiment conducted through a representative sample of the Spanish population (n=1,200), we examine the likelihood of participants voting for a politician that faces a dilemma in a public bidding process in which bypassing the procedure established by law leads to the most efficient outcome. In addition, we analyze the causal mechanisms that explain the link between observing a politician of the preferred party defying the law and the likelihood to vote for him/her. The results indicate that trustworthiness is the main mediator that drives the reduction in the propensity to vote for a crooked politician. However, voters are more likely to accept legal violations when these serve to improve the conditions of the community and the politician does not personally benefit from breaking the law.