Scholars have often argued that since public accountability is low in autocratic regimes and incentives to distribute rents to cronies are high, dictators have strong incentives to engage in corruption resulting in high levels of corruption in these countries (McGuire and Olson 1995; Clague et al. 1996; Bueno de Mesquita et al. 2003). For example, in February 1986, the New York Times published a remarkable article about the rampant corruption that occurred under Marcos's rule in the Philippines, reporting that the “Marcos family and their friends have drained the economy while enriching themselves” by a “few billion US $” and “then transferred billions of dollars abroad.” In 2011, the Huffington Post reported that Egypt's ousted dictator, Hosni Mobarak, amassed “at least US $ 5 billion” via bribes and embezzlement of public funds. Dictators such as Idi Amin and his cronies in Uganda, Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire, and Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic have also gained infamy for embezzling billions of U.S. dollars. However, rampant corruption is not unique to individual dictators. Extensive corruption also reportedly occurred in more ideologically driven single-party and communist dictatorships such as the former Soviet Union, the former Socialist Republic of Romania, and China. Indeed, after examining statistical evidence and case studies, scholars find that not only is corruption high and pervasive in autocracies, but it is also higher than in democracies.
While the finding that corruption is high in autocracies is important, it paints the link between authoritarian regimes and corruption with a very broad brush. A careful examination of the historical record in fact reveals an intriguing phenomenon: ruling elites in many authoritarian states have actually implemented anti-corruption measures that have helped reduce corruption in these countries. For instance, King Hussein of Jordan and his son, King Abdullah, implemented a series of policies to curb corruption that was publicly lauded by the World Bank (World Bank 2005, 2013; also see Milton-Edwards and Hinchcliffe 2009). Two successive presidents in authoritarian Iran during the mid-to-late 1990s – Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami – cooperated with opposition parties in the country's Majlis (parliament) to design and implement a series of anti-corruption measures. Likewise, during the mid-1970s in Bolivia, the country's military dictator, Colonel Hugo Banzer Suárez, and opposition legislators in Bolivia's authoritarian legislature implemented policy measures that were designed to curb corruption (Gamarra and Malloy 1990). Importantly, these examples are not unique.