“A president is a high-level official who is elected to carry out a function. He is not a king, not a god. He is not the witch doctor of a tribe who knows everything. He is a civil servant. I think the ideal way of living is to live like the vast majority of people whom we attempt to serve and represent.”
José Mujica, President of Uruguay (2010-2015)
Proclaimed the world’s humblest head of state, José (Pepe) Mujica Cordano led Uruguay from 2010 to 2015. Mr. Mujica spent 13 years in jail in the 1970s and 1980s for conspiring against the country’s authoritarian leaders. After he was released, he entered politics, where he served as a senator for the Movement of Popular Participation, or MMP. As president, he donated 90% of his $12,000 a month salary to charity. He also continued to live in his simple farm house on the outskirts of Montevideo, and he kept using the same 1987 Volkswagen Beetle that he’d driven for years. Today he continues to serve his country as a senator.
In a region plagued by corruption and unethical behavior, Pepe Mujica and Uruguay are exceptions to the norm. And while there are many potential explanations for Uruguay’s exceptionalism, one stands out: Uruguay is the most equal nation in Latin America. In Uruguay, the wealthiest 20% of society earn just 8 times the poorest 20% of the country. In contrast, in Chile and Mexico, the most unequal nations in the region, the wealthiest 20% of society earn 14 times as much as the bottom 20% of the nation. In a world in which inequality is on the rise, this raises a timely question.
Does inequality drive corruption and unethical behavior? Research suggest it might.
Dr. Piff’s laboratory
Social scientists have explored the impact of inequality but few have looked at the issue in as much depth as Paul Piff at the University of California, Berkley. As Piff began exploring the effects of inequality, he began to suspect that wealth and isolation from others encouraged unethical behavior. To test his hypothesis, Piff ran a series of carefully designed experiments to measure how unequal social environments affect human conduct. He and his team began by sending groups of graduate students out to the streets to observe the behavior of drivers at four-way intersections.
Their results were simple, yet powerful. Compared to drivers with older model cars, motorists with more expensive vehicles were far less likely to come to a complete stop, even if pedestrians were in the crosswalk. Wealthy drivers were simply less compelled to follow the rules, even if it meant putting someone else’s life at risk.
In subsequent experiments, Piff placed people from all walks of life into social situations in which some individuals were given an upper-hand. For example, he invited participants to play a game of monopoly in which the game was rigged in the favor of several of the players at the table. What he found was astounding. Across dozens of games, regardless of age, sex, race, or social class, players with an unfair advantage became more and more unethical in their behavior and actions as the game progressed.
In their 2012 paper titled “Higher Social Class Predicts Increased Unethical Behavior,” Dr. Piff and his co-authors concluded, “increased resources and independence from others cause people to prioritize self-interest over others’ welfare.”
Piff’s research suggests that inequality incites corruption amidst society’s most powerful groups. Still, like all psychological experiments, one is left to wonder whether things play out in the same way outside the laboratory.
Enter Latin America
In the late 1990s a natural experiment began in Latin America. In a region plagued by corruption, crime and inequality, individuals with strong moral convictions bound to notions of social justice and equality were elected to executive offices across the region. Latin America’s political shift to the left allows us to reflect on the behavior of individuals with theoretically strong moral compasses who were given the reins of highly unequal power structures. This is the type of “what if” scenario that scientists like Paul Piff dream about. It’s the ultimate experiment because instead of taking place in the lab, it unfolds in society, and in place of research subjects, the experiment runs with everyday citizens.
The experiment began in 1998 with the election of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, but the region’s turn to the left was driven by constituents’ rejection of the blatant corruption and greed displayed by conservative leaders during the neoliberal years of the 1980s and 1990s, Carlos Andres Pérez in Venezuela and Carlos Menem in Argentina to name just a few. During this period, Latin American governments drastically cut budgets for education and health care to reduce public expenditures. They also lifted barriers to trade—such a tariffs and quotas—to encourage market integration. Neoliberal politics stabilized export markets, encouraged capital investment from abroad, and in many countries in Latin America, led to macro-economic growth and stability. Still, the prophetic trickle-down effect, sold to the masses by the infamous Chicago Boys, never materialized.
U.S. trained economists and political scientists not only failed to improve the lives of the least fortunate, they empowered politicians who robbed the public blind. In Mexico, President Salinas de Gatori (1988-1994) stole the 1988 election, and in subsequent years funneled millions of dollars into private offshore accounts. In Nicaragua, the poorest country in the region, Arnoldo Aleman (1997-2002) made off with nearly $250 million. In Argentina, following a decade in the president’s office, Carlos Menem (1989-1999) was accused of illegally dealing arms to Ecuador and Croatia, failing to declare illicit funds in a Swiss bank account, and embezzlement while in office. By the mid-1990s, scandals of this nature emerged across the region. The people wanted change.
And beginning with the rise of Chávez in Venezuela, they got it. A so-called “pink tide” swept the region. Between 1998 and 2018, 15 countries in Latin America elected at least one president with a left-leaning political platform. In a continent defined by deep inequalities and extreme poverty, a turn toward the left ushered in a new era of hope for Latin Americans. The men and women who were elected during the pink tide were revered by their followers. Upon their shoulders, their backers placed the enormous weight of bringing justice and equality to a region where the easiest path to social mobility is often migration.
Latin America’s turn to the left was a political statement—a counter punch to neoliberalism’s failure to “lift all boats” and a turn away from the blatant corruption committed by unscrupulous leaders touting the free market as an elixir for all social ills. In a region where inequality and crime were rising, unemployment rates had skyrocketed, and remittances from abroad had emerged as the principal safety net for the working class, left-leaning politicians represented an air of hope for the poorest of the poor. They promised to enact pro-poor policies and to combat the corrupt practices of their more-conservative predecessors.
Naturally, Latin America’s political shift was hardly homogenous. Moderate socialists, such as Michelle Bachelet in Chile, promised to pursue modest social-democratic reforms designed to reduce inequality and increase social inclusion by reviving public education and health care and generating jobs that provide living wages to the working class. Hardline socialists, like Chávez, vowed to forge new economic models capable of providing for the collective good. Still, despite their differences, leaders from the left shared one thing in common: they all claimed to the fight for social justice and equality and to act on principle.
The members of the pink tide all espoused deep ethical and moral convictions in favor of the poor. Former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was fond of saying, “I will never tire of repeating my commitment to ensuring that every Brazilian can have breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day.” During his campaign in 2006, former guerrilla warrior Daniel Ortega assured his constituents that he would encourage foreign investment in Nicaragua but that his government would develop a “preferential option” for the poor. In 2009, Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes, who fought for the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front in the 1980s, promised that his government would encourage development that was “based on social inclusion, increase in opportunities, valorization of work productivity, modernization of public institutions and the guarantee of democratic freedom.”
One got the sense that the dawn of a new era was unfolding in Latin America. I remember the fervor of the moment. I recall when a good friend of mine from Nicaragua called me shortly after Daniel Ortega was elected president in 2006 and he told me, “We did it, brother. Now things will be different.” I believed him. The leaders of the pink tide broke with tradition. They were not the sons and daughters of elites. Rather, their path to power had begun with the people. When they screamed, “The people, united, will never be divided,” there was a sense that it came from their heart. They were former guerrilla fighters, union leaders, and activists. Many of them had spent time in jail for their activism, and all of them had been persecuted for their beliefs.
Dr. Piff’s theory in action
Today, Latin America’s experiment is over. The region is turning back to the right, and we are beginning to take stock of the pink tide’s legacies, which are mixed, at best. On one hand, Latin America’s turn to the left has led to a more equitable distribution of income within the region —though that was also helped by high rates of economic growth sparked by China and India’s demands for raw materials. Yet, despite the pro-poor rhetoric of populist leaders like Chávez in Venezuela, Ortega in Nicaragua, and Evo Morales in Bolivia, the largest reductions in inequality have taken place in social democratic societies like Brazil, Chile and Uruguay. Still, what is most surprising about the pink tide is that the populist leaders with the strongest anti-capitalist political agendas have not been insulated from the sorts of high-level corruption scandals for which Latin American leaders are infamous. Like their conservative predecessors, left-leaning presidents have themselves come corrupt. In fact, some of the largest scandals in Latin American history have come from the left.
In 2017 Brazil’s former union leader turned president, Lula, and his successor, Dilma Rousseff, found themselves embroiled in corruption and money laundering scandals—though, for Dilma, she was not personally involved they happened on her watch. In Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega used aid money from Venezuela to amass a personal fortune that rivals that of the former dictator, Anastasio Somoza Debayle, whom Ortega and his Sandinista movement ousted in 1979. Just to the north, in El Salvador, former guerrilla fighter and ex-president, Mauricio Funes, was recently found guilty of using the presidential office to enrich his family. The list goes on but the point is clear: in highly unequal societies, no one is immune from corruption.
The results of Latin American’s natural experiment are so similar to those from Piff’s studies that it is as if he and his colleagues had orchestrated the whole thing from one of their laboratories. That this happened outside the laboratory is what make the results so powerful. It confirms what English historian, Lord Dalberg-Acton, clarified in his 1887 letter to Archbishop Mandell Creighton.
“Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority.”
Lessons for an unequal world
As the left’s fall from grace reveals, corruption is not a monopoly of the right. Rather, corruption and unethical behavior are rooted in social conditions. From Mexico to Argentina, Latin America’s social structure encourages corruption, and until countries make a serious effort to combat these underlying causes, corruption will continue to plague leaders of all stripes and colors. This is a lesson worth remembering, especially in a world in which the concentration of wealth continues to rise.