Taking on the State Integrity Investigation

CCP Academic Advisor David Primo and the Institute for Justice’s Paul Sherman have an op-ed in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal discussing “good government” groups’ claims about political corruption.  The article looks at the State Integrity Investigation, spearheaded by the Center for Public Integrity, which ranked New Jersey as the state with the lowest risk of political corruption (New Jersey Least Corrupt? Ha, Ha,):

New Jersey’s place at the top of the heap isn’t the only curious conclusion reached in the study. Virginia—which in 2008 was deemed one of the best-governed states in the nation by the Pew Center on the States—earned an F grade, placing it with seven other states, including North and South Dakota, that allegedly have the greatest risk of political corruption.

These sorts of findings admit of only two explanations: Either New Jersey has gotten a bum rap in the past or something is very wrong with the State Integrity Investigation.

For starters, the study never actually defines what it means by corruption. Instead, the risk of corruption is defined by the presence or absence of certain laws—such as strict campaign-finance limits and lobbying disclosure—that good-government groups promote. But without a working definition of corruption, it is impossible to determine whether these sorts of reforms are the appropriate remedy.

The article continues:
Fighting political corruption is an important goal, and many sensible policies, like the stricter enforcement of existing antibribery laws, can help achieve that goal. But others, like campaign-finance restrictions, impose heavy burdens on free speech. It isn’t asking too much of good-government groups to come forward with evidence that their preferred policies actually reduce corruption. On that score, the State Integrity Investigation falls far short of the mark.  

As CCP President David Keating pointed out in a letter last week to the Washington Post, there is no established link between corruption, poorly managed state governments, and unlimited campaign contributions.  The standards by which CPI ranked the states has little grounding in the reality of the situation, relying instead on arbitrary standards chosen based on their adherence to the organization’s doctrine.

In reality, studies like these are more marketing tools for an organization wishing to insert itself into news cycle to advance an agenda.  Ranking system studies based on adherence to an organization’s internal doctrine rather than examination of facts and history are a useful tool for having a ready-made hook for the press when states look at reforming their laws or a corruption situation arises.  However, it is important to recognize that this is neither about the actual rate of corruption nor about whether the criteria used to make the rankings actually prevent corruption. It is, instead, an attempt to prime the public in their thinking so that future policies will be more palatable.

A study useful for more than generating a sound byte or quote would look at whether states with high levels of “anti-corruption” measures are, in fact, more or less corrupt.  Unfortunately, all we have is a report card on which states have laws with which the pro-regulation community agrees and disagrees. To this end, please direct your attention here…

The Center for Competitive Politics is now the Institute for Free Speech.