How can a president stamp out corruption?

So how are some societies more corrupt than others. Is it more a matter of cultural norms and what's acceptable in a culture? (as in Germans are famous for liking to follow rules, which is a cultural thing.)

  • I was thinking of Stalin's purges, or perhaps the NSDAP's use of a paramilitary called "brown shirts". As for your edit, that is what the separation of power into branches in the US was supposed to prevent.
    – user_42
    Jul 20, 2018 at 19:02
  • @user_42 did it work?
    – zooby
    Jul 20, 2018 at 19:03
  • Tough question. I suppose each worked in the initiator's favor to an extent. It is debatable that the end goals were objectively good and each method can be corrupted on its own. Might flesh this out into an answer if someone more knowledgeable doesn't first.
    – user_42
    Jul 20, 2018 at 19:09
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    To me, "what would be a good system...." sounds like a subjective question. Are you asking for effective anti-corruption policies? I'm not sure how to make the title and question text line-up. Jul 20, 2018 at 19:30
  • Assuming a President undergoes sincere self reflection resulting in an earnest desire for personal reformation, then by setting a good example himself by his own voluntary frank, forthright and complete public confession of his misdeeds. Televised of course.
    – agc
    Jul 21, 2018 at 16:00

5 Answers 5


I work in a position which is very close to the German public administration system, so I might be able to give some insight into how Germany tries to prevent corruption among its civil servants. It is not just the German mentality itself, but rather the structures which result from it.

  1. Civil servants ("Beamte") are treated very well. They get paid well, have a great pension plan and it is almost impossible to fire them for performance or budgetary reasons (which is why there is also a comedic stereotype that German civil servants are lazy, by the way). That means they don't have to take bribes to live a decent life and attaining the status of civil servant is a privilege nobody wants to give up lightly. However, there is one rule they have to follow: do not commit a crime! If they do, they get fired immediately and lose all their privileges. And corruption as a civil servant is a serious crime in Germany.
  2. Bureaucracy. You can't get anything done in the German public administration system without doing the proper paperwork. That paper trail might later be used to investigate corruption. Bureaucracy might be disdained for being annoying, but the reason bureaucratic hurdles exist is usually to block avenues of corruption.
  3. A rigorous auditing system. There are both internal auditing instances within government organizations as well as external auditing instances which are isolated and separated from the organizations. These auditing instances are feared because they are very powerful. We tend to call them "the holy inquisition" (but only behind their backs).
  4. Functional separation. Any process with potential for corruption has a 4 eyes system. There are also functional separations between different institutions. For example, when one government institution decides you have to pay a fine, that fine is collected by a completely different institution. Sure, it is theoretically possible that they all conspire to commit corruption. But the more people you need to be in on a conspiracy, the higher the risk that one of them slips up and they all go to prison.
  5. Transparency. Over the course of the past 20 years, most federal states have created freedom of information laws which give citizens the right to request copies of any contracts between government organizations and private companies. That makes it very difficult for high-ranking government officials to do any backroom deals. (Germany was rather late with this. The United States have such a law since 1967)
  6. A free press which makes sure that any corruption scandals will be brought to the attention of the public. Note that ironically, a free press means that it feel like there is more corruption, because the public actually learns about it. When a government suppresses negative reporting, then their population will get the impression that there is a lot less corruption than there really is while corrupt officials will feel protected.

But none of these principles are unique to Germany. You will usually see similar structures in any country which scores well on the corruption perception index.

Now one might wonder why there are so many heads of executive branches ("Presidents") in the world which do not implement these principles in their public administrations and end up with such high grades of corruption?

The reason for 1-4 is that they cost money and reduce efficiency. There is a well known rule in business planning: "Good, Fast, Cheap: Pick any two!". This rule also applies to public administration. If you want your administration to be incorruptible, then you either have to live with it being inefficient (making people more likely to look for ways to bypass it) or spend a lot of money on it. Many governments are not able or willing to spend that money or accept the problems caused by an inefficient administration. Points 5-6 also limit the power of the politicians, so they might be reluctant to give up these powers.

  • Are "heads of executive branches" in Germany allowed to own businesses that could profit by changes in government policy? Jul 25, 2018 at 4:38
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    @KeithMcClary This is a separate question you should ask as a new question.
    – Philipp
    Jul 25, 2018 at 7:33

There are 3 components which are required for any top leader to reduce corruption.

  1. A will to act. Corruption naturally seeps in when it is unchecked. Checking it regularly decreases it.
  2. Self-restraint. Absolute power allows a leader to enable those who would increase the leader's power to the point of the leader not being bound by the mandate established for them by law, purported philosophy, or anything else really. Not getting seduced by power requires conscious effort to restrict one's power even when it seems beneficial to extend it.
  3. A skill for vetting people. Most people who want power try to slide in on coattails of a leader. If they are skilled enough, they position themselves to be the only ones whose opinion a leader would hear. A leader who wishes not to be corrupted must know how to identify people trying to grab power for power's sake and how to reduce their influence while increasing influence of those who would strictly stay within the established boundaries.
  • 4
    Can you provide a reference to something that shows that these three components are required to reduce corruption? A reader may wish to know more about this framework. Jul 20, 2018 at 20:08
  • Even assuming that this is "all that is needed", it does not seem practical beyond a small group of hand-picked followers, which does not translate well into "national bureacracy".
    – SJuan76
    Jul 20, 2018 at 23:13
  • 1
    @Sjuan76, did you just really try to argue that listing of 3 required conditions must be defended as "sufficient" conditions? Did you really expect that the difference between sufficient and required would go unnoticed on stackexchange?
    – user21369
    Jul 21, 2018 at 0:12
  • 3
    This is good about how a president himself will not be corrupt. But a non-corrupt president could still be incompetent in controlling corruption in his society.
    – zooby
    Jul 21, 2018 at 3:26
  • @user21369 the issue is that this answer is very vague and contradictory: the leader has to act (1) or to avoid acting (2) and has to have a "magical corrupt-o-meter" (3) that tells him if someone is bound to be corrupt or not. Not to mention the missing point that he has to vet almost every middle level management (at the minimum) with that magical corrupt-o-meter and influence personally the whole administration. Oh, and the confusion between "wanting more power" and "being corrupt" (a corrupt official can be happy without advancing because that allows him to keep his racket working).
    – SJuan76
    Jul 21, 2018 at 9:03

There is no perfect answer to this. No magic bullet. And it's probably not possible for a single politician to eliminate corruption, especially in a way that will be lasting after he leaves office. It requires major changes to culture, political systems, and so on.

But there are ways to reduce corruption. The basic idea is, you need to have systems of inducements and ethics that will reinforce and feedback on each other so that when people do the right thing they get rewarded. When they do the wrong thing they get punished. And these need to happen automatically through the existing features of the system.

Many cultures do very much the opposite of this. They reward people who violate the ethics, and punish them for following the ethics. There is a fundamental reason for this. One exploration of this is this book by Jane Jacobs.


The best I can do here is a drastically abbreviated outline. The fundamental thesis in Jacobs's book is as follows. There are two very different systems of ethics. One applies to commercial activity like business, jobs, and various other activities associated with voluntary trade for profit. The other system applies to what Jacobs calls guardian activity. Guardian activities consist of getting hold of, and keeping hold of, geographic territory, and extracting value from that territory.

So the result is, if you stick to the ethical system that corresponds to your type of activity, then that system will reinforce itself and strongly discourage corruption. But if you get outside your system of ethics, then things go wrong very quickly.

Jacobs gives a page-long list of ethical rules for each system. Here I give just a few items that naturally show up as pairs.

On the commercial side the first rule is to shun force. On the guardian side the first rule is to shun trade.

I anticipate lots of people saying OH OH OH! Everybody should shun force and do trade! But look. A police officer necessarily wields force. Or at least the implication of force, the possibility of force, the threat of force. A cop who starts wanting to do "commerce" as part of his police activities is pretty much automatically corrupt. Imagine him bargaining over how much your traffic ticket should be because he gets paid on the basis of the ticket. While he stands at your car window with a gun on his hip.

So as long as we have both force and trade in society, they should be performed by two different groups. Because force is not compatible with free trade.

Another pair of rules: On the commercial side, be optimistic. On the guardian side, be fatalistic.

Optimism means you expect things to get better, you expect newly met people to be valuable and useful trade partners. So you are likely to work hard and invest. Fatalism associates with your territory. Your home territory is your fate.

One last pair I will quote: On the commercial side, pile up treasure. On the guardian side, treasure honor.

So just a couple examples. Consider the Mafia. They pull items from both lists. They have an honor code and definitely use force. But they also like to get a lot of money and do business trades. Result, a system that most people would agree is corrupt. They deal in bribes and threats and violence, but also have a public face that appears to involve legitimate businesses.

Consider what happens when you give police officers a financial incentive. For example if you pay them according to the number and prestige of arrests they make. Jacobs reports on such a scheme. When this was announced to the detectives, they were not out of the squad room before they had a scheme to plant drugs on motorists so they could then arrest them.

Consider prison operated factories. They pay the prisoners in the range of 10 cents an hour to make fridges and furniture and things. But that means they want a lot of relatively easy to manipulate prisoners. So, where did the "three time loser" law come from that will put somebody in prison for 25 years if he gets caught shoplifting 3 times? I'm not sure what the correct thing to do with such a person is, but I strongly suspect 25 years in prison is sub optimal. And why is the "war on drugs" so resilient? What happens to somebody who gets caught with a month's worth of pot? In some states, it's a very long prison term.

Jacobs gives several other examples, plus lots of interesting analysis. The basic result is, people who do the guardian actions in society should be well and truly separated from people who do commercial things in society.


I will provide a specific example from a ex-communist country, now in EU (Romania) who is struggling with corruption and where an ex-President was involved in tackling it (at least high level one).

In order to tackle corruption the context might include several factors:

1. Acknowledgement

Romania has a high level of corruption within EU and an ex-President acknowledged this:

According to Transparency International's annual Corruption Perceptions Index, as of 2017, Romania is the third most corrupt country in the European Union after Bulgaria, Hungary and at the same level as Greece.

When the treaty was signed with the European Union, former president Traian Băsescu mentioned that "Romania [was] not yet prepared to meet the European Union's standards.

He was the one that appointed Laura Codruța Kövesi, the only public servant to have held the office of Prosecutor General for the entire duration of its term.

2. Legislative framework

In order for the President to become an actor in fighting corruption, he/she must be allowed by law to influence some appointments. In Romania's case The President is allowed to appoint the head of the most important institution that fights against corruption (among other important figures related to justice):

The President appoints the President, the Vice-President and Presidents of the High Court of Cassation and Justice. However, he can also refuse, on grounded reasons, the appointment of the person nominated by the Superior Council of Magistracy for these offices. Moreover, the Romanian General Prosecutor, his first deputy and deputy, the Prosecutor of the General Anticorruption Directorate and his deputies, the chief-prosecutors of these public prosecutor’s offices, as well as the chief-prosecutor of the Directorate for the Investigation of Organized Crime and Terrorism are also appointed by the President, on the proposal of the Ministry of Justice, with the approval of the Superior Council of Magistracy.

This is an important topic and current politicians are struggling to not allow the President to appoint DNA leadership.

3. A favorable international context

This article tells the story of anti-corruption in Romania with an emphasis on DNA:

It might not come as a surprise that the DNA was not founded voluntarily by Romanian politicians. Its creation was more of a good-will token to be shown to the European Union in order to convince them that Romania, which at the time was working towards meeting the conditions for EU membership, was truly committed to weeding out corruption and to strengthening its much-maligned judiciary.

This makes sense since Romania (along with Bulgaria) had to accept CVM in order to be allowed in EU.

4. A favorable internal context

In order for anti-corruption to be more effective, it must also be supported internally:

(..) a 2015 poll reporting that a high 60% of Romanians trust the DNA (compared to 61% for the Romanian Orthodox Church and only 11% for parliament).


There have been historical attempts to stamp out what the leaders viewed as corruption (though some could be argued as a form of corruption on their own).


The communist party under Stalin had several purges that consisted of:

periodic reviews of members of the Communist Party were conducted to get rid of "undesirables".

The idea of party purges began innocently enough: between 1921 and 1933 in the Soviet Union, for example, some 800,000 people were purged or left the party, but most suffered no worse fate (although the ones that did became the first waves of the Gulag Archipelago system). But from 1934 onwards, during the Great Purge, the connotations of the term changed, because being expelled from the party came to mean almost certain arrest, with long imprisonment or execution following.


The National Socialist German Workers' Party (NSDAP) formed their own paramilitary called the Sturmabteilung / "Brown Shirts" which consisted of:

organizing and formalizing the groups of ex-soldiers and beer hall brawlers who were to protect gatherings of the Nazi Party from disruptions from Social Democrats (SPD) and Communists (KPD) and to disrupt meetings of the other political parties.

United States

The U.S. constitution laid out the separation of powers of the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial branches:

three separate branches, each of which would have defined abilities to check the powers of the others. This philosophy heavily influenced the writing of the United States Constitution, according to which the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial branches of the United States government are kept distinct in order to prevent abuse of power.

New Zealand, Denmark, Finland and Sweden

New Zealand, Denmark, Finland and Sweden have been consistently ranked at the top of the Corruption Perceptions Index and are perceived to be the least corrupt of all the countries surveyed.

Transparency International lays out the following reasons for the low perceived corruption in these countries:

  • disclosure of budget information closes the door to waste and misappropriation of public funds. Therefore, countries should seek to promote information disclosure as well as enhance citizens’ participation throughout the budget process. The Open Budget Index shows that Sweden allows citizens to assess how their government is managing public funds.
  • Codes of conduct for public servants. Denmark obliges ministers to monthly publish information on their spending travel and gifts
  • Legal framework criminalising a wide range of corruption related abuses and an independent and efficient judiciary.


China has started a large anti-corruption campaign in 2012.

Upon taking office, Xi vowed to crack down on "tigers and flies", that is, high-level officials and local civil servants alike. Most of the officials investigated were removed from office and faced accusations of bribery and abuse of power, although the range of alleged abuses varied widely

and consists of:

The inspection teams are typically 'stationed' for a few months at the organization they were tasked with overseeing, and are in charge of thorough audits into the conduct of officials and organizational practices. The inspection teams sends the results of the audits to the CCDI to enact formal investigative procedures such as Shuanggui (the practice of detaining individual party members for investigation).

  • The fact that (at least) two of your three examples are of authoritarian oppressive regimes makes this answer rather one-sided. Jul 20, 2018 at 19:47
  • @DJClayworth Agreed, still researching more democratic countries that have attempted to fight corruption, these were just the first to come to mind when reading the question.
    – user_42
    Jul 20, 2018 at 19:52
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    Authoritarian regimes mostly use the fight against corruption as an excuse in internal power struggles; they are bad at fighting corruption because criticism of corrupt officials is often interpreted (honestly or as an excuse) as criticism of the regime and that is an absolute no-no.In this regard China is an odditiy in that sometimes it cedes to popular pressure, if it is strong enough.
    – SJuan76
    Jul 20, 2018 at 23:10
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    To be fair. Authoritarian regimes probably do have really low corruption compared to more liberal systems. Corruption can be the price you pay for a less authoritarian society.
    – zooby
    Jul 21, 2018 at 3:24
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    -1 How are the brown shirts meant to fight corruption? They were meant to intimidate and fight political enemies and Jews. Your USSR example also doesn't fit.
    – tim
    Jul 21, 2018 at 7:40

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