In February 2020, a few days before the pandemic paralyzed Spain,
the Mexican Emilio Lozoya was arrested in the luxury urbanization of Malaga where he was hiding. Lozoya was president of the Mexican oil company Pemex and the justice of his country wanted him for being at the center of a corruption plot of the Brazilian construction company Odebrecht. In June 2020, when he was extradited to his country, Lozoya revealed that three former Mexican presidents – Enrique Peña Nieto, Felipe Calderón and Carlos Salinas – were involved in bribery and illegal financing.
Mexico is not the only country where corruption is widespread. Peru has proceedings open against its last six elected former presidents. Brazil has had Lula da Silva jailed until recently. Spain has had cases of political corruption, such as Filesa or Gürtel, which have reached very high on the scale of power.
Does a society become more dishonest when its politicians are corrupt? How powerful is bad example to change the behavior of citizens? Although there is a large theoretical literature that supports this relationship, empirical studies that demonstrate the scope of political exemplarity are lacking. One of the most recent works has been done in Mexico by the researcher Nicolás Ajzenman (“The power of the example: corruption drives corruption”) who has discovered that public exposure of corruption influenced the behavior of high school students from that area. country.
After revealing corrupt behavior by municipal officials, students were more likely to cheat on exams, up to 10% more. The effect was more pronounced among older students because they are more exposed to political discussions at home. One of the mechanisms that explain what happened is a social learning process through which people perceive the behavior of their leaders, adjust their perspective in relation to social norms and end up changing their usual values.
Ajzenman’s work shows that politicians help shape the ethical standards of the societies they lead. The study indicates that the impact was greater among people who were more exposed to the media and also in those municipalities where the ruling party was thought to be honest.
The evidence that a transitory factor such as the negative example of a corrupt leader is determining in the attitudes of citizens is an important discovery about our social experience. Other economic research on attitudes has shown that recessions have a negative impact on people’s confidence (Ananyev and Guriev, 2018), that having lived under a communist regime affects redistribution preferences (Alesina and Fuchs-Schündeln, 2007) and that granting property titles to the illegal occupants of a territory has an effect on their beliefs regarding of the free market (Di Tella, Galiani and Schargrodsky 2007). These findings appear to only reinforce popular wisdom, but they always add details to fine-tune the way social interactions unfold. Sociology has also theorized that people behave dishonestly by imitating others. But it is in the economics of organizations where work has been carried out that shows that leading by example is effective (Hermalin, 1998) and an experiment empirically demonstrated that leaders influence the ethical behavior of their subordinates in companies (D’Adda , Darai, Weber, 2017).
Sociology provides additional evidence through the so-called ‘moral license’ phenomenon, also called ‘license to sin’. It describes the fact that greater self-confidence and self-confidence make us worry less about the consequences of immoral behavior. This human tendency to compensate virtuous acts with others that are not has an impact on organizations. Research shows that people are more likely to cheat or cheat after having performed a charitable act or that they perceive as socially responsible (Effron & Conway, 2015).
Although much has been studied how leaders influence society there is also research on how subordinates or followers (voters) influence leaders. The same theory of moral license allows us to examine the effect of positive behavior by subordinates. A large experiment with three different studies (Ahmad, Klotz, and Bolino, 2020) showed that bosses felt entitled to misbehave after their team members performed good deeds. In addition, this phenomenon is much more likely to occur in leaders who have narcissistic qualities or feel closely identified with their team members. This could be behind some unexplained phenomena until now, such as the fact that some corrupt politicians are continually reelected. Exemplarity would then be a two-way street: leaders influence subordinates as much as subordinates influence subordinates.
Jesús Gil was mayor of Marbella between 1991 and 2002. Despite the numerous scandals that surrounded him, he revalidated his majority in 1995 and 1999. He left office after being sentenced to 28 years of disqualification, but it is possible that he continued to win elections. Beneath his striking personality was a corrupt structure (his successor Julián Muñoz, the manager of Urbanism Juan Antonio Roca) that looted the Marbella Town Hall as evidenced by Operation ‘Malaya’ and ‘Saqueo’. It is estimated that 550 million euros were embezzled. Only 25 million were recovered.