“Kleptocracy” means “rule by thieves”. People have been complaining for millennia that such is what their government is. How common is such rule? And if it’s that common, can much be done about it?

In his classic book The City of God, St. Augustine lamented that the Roman Empire, having been built by force and fraud, was little more than a magnum latrocinium: one big den of thieves. Most empires have been built that way—including most of the colonial empires formed by the powers of Western Europe between the 16th and the 20th centuries (the British Empire was arguably an exception, but some would deny even that).

But now that all those empires are history, it doesn’t seem to be getting much better, at least judging by the news lately.

For one thing, there’s the “Panama Papers” scandal that broke last month, in which dozens of present and past world leaders were revealed to have parked many billions in “offshore” accounts and “shell companies” over the past several decades. Much of that parking activity was legal. But if you follow up on the details of what was hitherto kept private, it’s clear that much of that money must have been ill-gotten to begin with. Nobody gets rich on the salary of a public servant, even that of a president, and few leaders had that kind of money before they gained office.

[Image: Chicago Tribune]

Of course the cynical would say this is really nothing new, that politicians have often seen public office as a license to steal. As the saying goes: “Some men are senators because they are rich; others are rich because they are senators.” And that’s true.

But just how bad is it, country by country?

“Corruption,” understood to mean using public office to enrich oneself (with graft, bribes, or other means of questionable legality), is actually a major obstacle to economic, political, and even military progress in many countries. Transparency International has even compiled a list rating every country in the world for its level of corruption.

Unsurprisingly, North Korea, Somalia, and Afghanistan top the list. The first is one of the worst-governed countries in the world; the second has been mostly ungovernable for decades; and even the current president of Afghanistan admits that corruption, much of it fueled by drug money, is the single biggest problem plaguing his government. Pretty much the same goes for Iraq. Considering how much blood and treasure the US and its NATO allies have poured into those countries, one must wonder whether it’s all been worth it.

Then there are the periodic corruption scandals in the U.S. itself. People have not forgotten that the 2008-9 financial crash, which nearly caused a second Great Depression, was facilitated largely by lending practices that the lenders knew were shady and shaky, but didn’t want to stop because they were so profitable in the short term. The game had been encouraged by Federal policy and by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, government-backed agencies. Although a few major financial firms failed in the crash, and JP Morgan Chase eventually had to pony up a $13 billion fine to the U.S. government, nobody had to serve jail time. In the meantime, the big banks were bailed out with “funny money” created by the Federal Reserve, while millions of ordinary Americans lost their homes to foreclosure.

Many Americans think that DC and Wall Street were a little too cozy with each other then, and still are. They are right. So are we a kleptocracy, too?

Only to an extent. There are far worse places for kleptocracy. We’ll always have some kleptocrats, but kleptocracy can be kept in check if enough people expect, demand, and act for justice. Just look at Iceland!