The geography of corruption
This video is part of our Kite & Key Shorts series—easy to understand...but hard to forget.
Do you care where your state capital is located? If not, you probably should.
As of the 2020 census, 17 capitals are located in their state’s largest city.i The most populous is Phoenix, Arizona, with over 1.6 million residents.ii In the other 33 states, the capital cities can be … a little sleepier. Vermont’s capital city of Montpelier, for instance, has fewer than 7,500 people.iii
Why does it matter?
Because research suggests the more remote a state capital is the more corrupt it tends to be.iv Researchers found higher levels of corruption in states with remote capitals — like Albany, New York and Tallahassee, Florida — and lower levels in in capitals like Denver, which is the largest city in Colorado.
Why does this happen?
One theory is that when capitals are located in major population centers the local media is more likely to unearth scandals. When two similar corruption scandals occurred in the governments of Massachusetts and New York the one in Boston received over 50% more major newspaper coverage than the one in Albany.v
Another factor: It turns out the farther people live from the seat of their state government the less they care about what goes on in the capital. And while big city capitals might conjure images of corrupt bargains in smoke-filled rooms it turns out that special interest groups spend more money in isolated capitals.
Can anything be done?
On one hand, no state has moved its capital since Oklahoma in 1910.vi On the other, making Las Vegas a capital city might be too hard for lawmakers to resist.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW:
- State governments tend to be more corrupt when the capital is far removed from major population centers.
- Remote capitals get less media coverage than more urban ones.
- Special interest groups spend more money in isolated capitals.
- List of Capitals in the United States – Ballotpedia
- "10 Largest Capital Cities in the United States" – ThoughtCo.
- "The 10 Least Populated State Capitals" – World Atlas
- Isolated Capital Cities, Accountability, and Corruption: Evidence From U.S. States (Filipe R. Campante, Quoc-Anh Do) – American Economic Review
- “How the Location of State Capitals Influences Political Corruption” (Eric Jaffe) – Bloomberg
- “Sacramento Has Been the State’s Capital Since 1854. But Why?” (Walt Grey) – ABC 10 — Sacramento
List of Capitals in the United States
"10 Largest Capital Cities in the United States"
- World Atlas
"The 10 Least Populated State Capitals"
- American Economic Review
Isolated Capital Cities, Accountability, and Corruption: Evidence From U.S. States (Filipe R. Campante, Quoc-Anh Do)
“How the Location of State Capitals Influences Political Corruption” (Eric Jaffe)
- ABC 10 — Sacramento
“Sacramento Has Been the State’s Capital Since 1854. But Why?” (Walt Grey)