A Latin American Spring?

WASHINGTON, DC – As corruption scandals rattle Latin America, many observers are asking if the region will ever shake off its legacy of weak institutions. I believe the answer is yes.

My optimism is based partly on the history of the United States, founded by leaders who were highly concerned about corruption; by some accounts, they devised the Constitution with the specific goal of vaccinating the new republic against vice. Despite their efforts, however, the US government soon became as venal as any of the old regimes in Europe – and, as Francis Fukuyama has argued, remained so for more than a century.

Even after the US finally started cleaning up the federal government, political patronage endured at the state and municipal levels. Policies to increase government transparency, such as the Freedom of Information Act, did not come into force until the 1960s.

Today, Americans still worry about the influence of money in politics, as demonstrated by recurring arguments over campaign finance in their current presidential primaries. But there is no denying that the US government today is infinitely more virtuous than it was in the days of Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, or Teddy Roosevelt.