Graft is a form of political corruption in which an official gains something due to a position of power, trust, or insider knowledge. Many governments have systems in place to prevent graft, and a discovery of graft can mark the end of a politician's career. These measures are designed to ensure that public officials perform their duties fairly and responsibly, and that they make decisions for the benefit of the people, rather than for a select few.
The term appears to have emerged in its modern form in 1865. The origins are a bit unclear, as the other common use of “graft” refers to uniting two pieces of material, as in bone grafts, gum grafts, and botanical grafting. In the United Kingdom, “graft” means “work,” which can lead to some understandable confusion between speakers of British and American English. “Graft” is one of many colorful political terms which emerged in the United States; gerrymandering and filibustering are two other well-known examples. Countless others have unfortunately been lost to history.
A number of actions could be considered graft, ranging from accepting an expensive gift while in office to purchasing land which is going to be needed for a highway bypass. Unlike bribery, graft does not require the participation of a second individual, although graft can certainly involve a group of people or politicians. In addition to gaining measurable profit, a politician may also acquire less tangible advantages through graft, such as an important political position or a seat on a committee.
When a politician manipulates a public budget so that he or she will profit, this is known as graft. Likewise, a politician who lands a contract which will profit his or her company is also engaging in graft; in both cases, the politician is gaining a financial advantage through questionable activity. Politicians are expected to recuse themselves in situations where they might make decisions which affect their net wealth, but many do not, and they pocket the profits.
A politician can also use exclusive knowledge to profit from something. For example, a member of a planning commission might be aware that a section of land is about to be purchased by the government for the purpose of building something. He or she could secretly buy the land and then demand a higher price for it, profiting from insider knowledge. While real estate speculation is not illegal, dishonest advantages definitely are considered unethical.