The underlying causes of corruption remain poorly understood and widely debated. Yet the study of corruption beyond the realm of opinion surveys is still in its infancy, and there is little firm evidencerelating corruption to real-world causal factors. Notably, social norms are often mentioned as a primarycontributor to corruption in both the academic literature and the popular press, yet there is no evidencebeyond the most casual of cross-country empirics.
Research on the causes of corruption is compounded by the difficulties inherent in disentanglingthe effect of social norms versus legal enforcement: societies that collectively place less importance onrooting out corruption, and thus have weak anti-corruption social norms, may simultaneously have lesslegal enforcement. Understanding the relative importance of these potential causes of corruption is of central importance in reforming public institutions to improve governance: if corruption is predominantlycontrolled through anti-corruption social norms, interventions that focus exclusively on boosting legalenforcement will likely fail.We develop an empirical approach for evaluating the role of social norms in corruption bystudying parking violations among international diplomats living in New York City. Consular personneland their families benefit from diplomatic immunity, a privilege which allowed them to avoid payingparking fines prior to November 2002. We examine differences in the behavior of government employeesfrom different countries, all living and working in the same city, all of whom can act with impunity in(illegally) parking their cars. The act of parking illegally fits well with a standard definition of corruption,i.e., “the abuse of entrusted power for private gain,”
suggesting that the comparison of parking violationsby diplomats from different societies serves as a plausible measure of the extent of corruption socialnorms or a corruption “culture”.
See Lambsdorff (2005) for an overview of findings on culture and corruption based on cross-country comparisons.Witzel (2005) provides one of many discussions on the topic in the popular press. Mauro (2004) discusses severalmodels of multiple equilibria in corruption levels that could be seen as capturing corruption culture. Tirole (1996)develops a model of bureaucratic collective reputation that also implies persistent corruption.
This is the definition used by the international anti-corruption organization Transparency International (seehttp://ww1.transparency.org/about_ti/mission.html, accessed online March 9, 2006).