What is Kleptocracy?

Mary McMahon

The pejorative term “kleptocracy” is applied to a government tainted by widespread greed and corruption and headed by a person who has used the government for personal enrichment and gain. While the suffix “-ocracy” often implies a form of government, kleptocracies are not forms of government, but rather governments so fundamentally corrupt that they are difficult, if not impossible, to salvage.

Living in a kleptocracy can be marked by a lack of public service, such as garbage collection.
Living in a kleptocracy can be marked by a lack of public service, such as garbage collection.

Most commonly, this situation arises in authoritarian governments. Such governments lend themselves to corruption because there is little accountability and the head of the government usually appoints friends, family members, and close associates to key positions in the government in order to retain control. This sets up a ruling class, and with no accountability, members of the government can freely abuse government funds.

Poorly maintained roads may be faced by citizens living in a kleptocracy.
Poorly maintained roads may be faced by citizens living in a kleptocracy.

In a kleptocracy, most government revenues wind up in the hands of officials, and are not applied to public works projects, welfare, and other activities. Government agencies are often dysfunctional as a result of limited funding and being headed by people who lack qualifications. Aid organizations attempting to provide assistance in the country may be frustrated by seeing all the aid diverted for personal profit, with national leaders selling humanitarian aid to the highest bidder instead of allowing it to be distributed for the good of the populace.

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Citizens living in a kleptocracy may have limited access to health care.
Citizens living in a kleptocracy may have limited access to health care.

Bribery is commonly necessary to accomplish tasks ranging from getting a building permit to opening a new business. The more money people have, the higher they can rise in the kleptocracy, by greasing the way with high ranking officials, and this in turn generates more money for them as they accept bribes and gifts from people fighting for a position in the government. It is not uncommon to see the justice system break down as people simply refuse to attend their own trials or bribe their way out of legal penalties.

For the average citizen, living in a kleptocracy can be marked with extreme hardship. Lacking clout and funding, people may have difficulty completing basic tasks. The lack of public services can result in problems like uncollected garbage, unpaved and poorly maintained roads, limited access to health care, and other issues. Citizens who protest government policy or attempt to draw attention to the problems with the government may become political prisoners and can face penalties like execution for treason. Free elections are usually not present in a kleptocracy and some nations may not even bother to hold sham elections, allowing leaders to remain in place for decades and to pass power on to their children.

Bribery is commonly necessary in a kleptocracy.
Bribery is commonly necessary in a kleptocracy.

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Discussion Comments


Evidence that the U.S.A. is a kleptocracy is all around us. America is a kleptocratic Gulag state by any meaningful comparison with those other countries you mention in your article.

The innocents projects in the USA is for the wrongfully accused by the criminal justice system. The latter is stealing wealth and making a mockery of the criminal justice system across America.

The U.S. financial crisis resulted in trillions of dollars having been stolen in the form of added government debt and the resulting loss of the population’s assets. The immense human toll this has taken warrants being called an atrocity while none of the criminal financial ruling class has been prosecuted.

The U.S. kleptocracy’s solution was to punish the victims and reward the criminals by stealing trillions of increased debt that was then accessed by the financial institutions that had perpetrated the crimes and hardships. Crime really does pay, in trillions! It's justification for force feeding trillions into the feudal financial lords is that government and people are just too stupid manage their affairs if the funds were directed to the masses instead.

The U.S. Has 25 percent of the world’s prison inmates and only 5 percent of the world's population. Inmate totals exceed peak Soviet Gulag inmate totals. If Texas were a country, it would have the fourth largest prison population on earth.

The U.S. makes widespread use of prisoners as slave labor (according to CNBC) to the point of putting legit labor based businesses out of existence.

They have more military spending than the total spent by the rest of the developed world combined on military, etc. It is physically impossible for the U.S. military to spend that much! Obviously graft and fraud is rampant.

All the while unemployment is rampant, the infrastructure is collapsing, pensions are inadequate, nearly 50 million Americans regularly go hungry, and they have a failed education system with the lowest SAT scores in 40 years, etc.

Revoking the laws of our forefathers that were put in place to prevent another massive collapse like the great depression was a huge mistake that has not been corrected. This proves that we live a corrupt, deluded academic world that is bound to repeat such errors of the past.

The U.S. government has proven that it is so fundamentally corrupt that is difficult, if not impossible, to salvage.


@titans62 - That is an interesting point. I think it shows how much we need to be aware of different cultures when we are interacting with them. The U.S. at least, has a pretty poor track record of instituting good governments in countries after it leaves. Part of that is often that other countries' customs aren't like America's.

That's not to say a kleptocratic government is good. I think it is pretty well established that a kleptocracy is counterproductive to success, but maybe there are times when things that seem to go against western ethics are okay, just because that's the way things are in other places.


@matthewc23 - I think it's an important point to note, however, that not all governments that take bribes are necessarily kleptocracies or corrupt in general. Bribes are just part of Asian business culture in general. The main example I can think of is Japan.

Whenever the government accepts bids for certain jobs or enters into trading agreements with other countries, it is usually expected that there will be a customary bribes associated with the offer. It doesn't mean the government is corrupt, that is just how things have evolved. This causes a lot of problems when western countries try to make deals with Asian countries. Our laws say it is illegal to make "under the table" payments to other countries, but they may take it as a sign of disrespect.


I would be willing to guess that most kleptocracies are very centralized governments meaning that the president and his closest partners make most of the rules that benefit themselves.

I think that is one of the benefits of democracies or republics. If you are able to spread the power of the government out over lots of people, the opportunities for bribes are still there, but they will have much less effect.

You also have the trade-offs between the benefit of taking a bribe and the cost of it being discovered and you getting in trouble. In the governments with kleptocracies, people have no disincentive to taking bribes because it is widely accepted.


I think it's an important point to note that the governments of kleptocracies don't necessarily have to be ruled by communists or dictators or any of the other corrupt governments we usually think of.

I just finished a report looking at the effects of illegal logging in Southeast Asia. A lot of those governments are very corrupt and loggers give bribes for the rights to different forests. The old government of Indonesia that lasted from the 1960s to the 1990s fit all the descriptions from the article. The president's whole goal was the further the economics of the country at whatever expense to the environment and indigenous tribes.

Luckily, Indonesia overthrew their leader, and they are taking a lot of steps toward fixing the problems he caused. There is still a lot of corruption in the rest of Southeast Asia, though.


In the most dire of circumstances, sometimes playing the kleptocracy game and engaging in corruption is the only way to stay alive - in North Korea, smuggling goods (and people) across the border to China requires greasing the palms of the soldiers in the area to get them to look the other way - the situation is so desperate there that even the army is barely getting fed.

I think that being a kleptocracy sometimes is a necessary evil when you think about how overwhelming being under a government with complete control, and who don't have to answer to anyone but themselves. The people within the system then really need to do what they can to get by.


I think there are a lot of countries out there that would technically fall under the kleptocracy definition, even if their governments are supposedly democratic. I've spent a lot of time in Asia, and in countries like Thailand money really greases the wheels to get things done.

This is especially true of dealing with the police. There are set bribes in place, and because of the breakdowns in government, and the underpaid police force, you are left with a system ripe for extortion. A famous example of this is driving without a valid license, slipping a bribe under your ID will generally see you on your way with little hassle if the cops stop you.


@alisha-- You're right, they're both from ancient Greek. Kleptocracy's literal meaning is 'rule by thieves. '-klept' in ancient Greek means 'thief' and '-klepto' means 'to steal.' Kleptocracy comes from the word 'Kleptocracia' which means 'the rule by thieves' or a 'government of thieves.'

The word has maintained it's original definition because in Ancient Greece, kleptocracy was referred to a Greek government run by greedy and corrupt politicians. It's the same now. In a kleptocracy, political leaders embezzle government funds and use it for themselves, just like the politicians in an ancient Greek kleptocracy.


I know that democracy means 'rule of the people' because 'demos' means people. My Social Sciences teacher said that the word comes from ancient Greek and it sounds like kleptocracy is as well.

What is the meaning of the prefix 'klept'? Which word does it originate from?


I think that the problems mentioned in this article are present in many different types of governments across the world. Some would even say that our government is affected by corruption. But when I hear the term kleptocracy, the kind of government that comes to mind is the governments in many African countries that are plagued by conflict.

I read about Somalia in class last week and the Somali government fits the description of a kleptocratic government exactly. The government there is deeply corrupted and doesn't even have full control over the country. There are a militias that maintain control over certain regions and there is no Rule of Law whatsoever. The country is mainly undeveloped and there is not enough food to feed the people.

That's why the people rely on international organizations for resources but the resources often don't reach them because the militias steal the food by force and use it themselves or sell it to people instead of giving them in aid.

I think they have elections, but the elections are not democratic or dependable and that's why international organizations would need to carry that out as well. But the security situation doesn't permit that now.

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