This is a very brisk walk through a topic that should be taken slowly and treated in depth, but inevitably therefore at much greater length. Not the least of the reasons for engaging with it so briefly is that the institutions, if not always the practice, of Britain, the United States, and other liberal democracies today reflect efforts to rein in corruption that began in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but which drew on very ancient arguments about the individual and institutional failings that rot individual character and bring about the downfall of states by weakening their ability to resist foreign attack, or by turning accountable republican government into some form of tyranny. More recent arguments focus on the economic cost of corruption, leading some writers to distinguish quite sharply between political and economic corruption. It seems plausible to see them as two faces of one phenomenon: politicians enriching themselves by extracting favors from individuals and businesses, and the latter offering favors to politicians whose “friendship” they need. A greater focus on the economic costs seems apt for developing countries which cannot afford the damage to the welfare of their population, and a greater focus on the erosion of decent democratic governance more apt for rich countries such as Italy or the United States.

I begin with two observations. The first and most obvious is that in order to decide what is and what is not corrupt behavior we need an antecedent view about what good behavior is like and how it comes to be corrupted. Discussions of corruption are invariably and rightly embedded in discussions of good governance. Since corruption frequently refers to the corruption of politicians by rich men seeking favors or the shaking down of rich men by agents of the state seeking to enrich themselves, any discussion of corruption requires a firm grip on what we think an uncorrupt political system looks like and what a “clean” economy looks like. “The opposite of contemporary Russia” is a good start but lacking in detail and sophistication. Universal corruption, of the sort endemic to communist Romania, where school teachers, doctors, police, and administrators all expected to be bribed by those who needed their assistance, is the paradigm of a “dirty” economy and political system.

The second is that questions about corruption are enmeshed in questions about individual character; the notion of an objectively perfectly decent person engaging in objectively utterly corrupt behavior makes little sense. The notion of a person who is perfectly decent by their own lights engaging in behavior that an observer thinks corrupt is entirely intelligible; but we find it a stretch to think that they are really perfectly decent and yet “objectively” corrupt. At best, we shall think it is just about excusable, or a stain on their character that we can understand being overlooked in the circumstances in which they are operating. Sir Warren Hastings defended his conduct in India with the observation that when he considered the opportunities he had for enriching himself at the expense of the native population, he was astonished at his own moderation. American politicians in the Gilded Age might have said the same. I make this very simple point because anyone interested in institutional design will wish to think of ways in which decent persons not endowed with superhuman strength of character can be induced to behave in an uncorrupt fashion, and not be subjected to too much temptation to behave badly.

Portrait of Maximilien de Robespierre (1758-1794), oil on cavas, circa 1790 by unknown artist © The Carnavalet Museum |
Portrait of Maximilien de Robespierre (1758-1794), oil on fabric, circa 1790 by unknown artist © The Carnavalet Museum |

I have no general theory of good governance or of sturdy and incorruptible character, let alone how to render them universal. Robespierre’s soubriquet of the “sea-green incorruptible” reminds us that we may sometimes wish that people would be corrupted to the extent of not doing what they think to be their duty, either by simple good nature or by venality — prison officers who somehow lost well-connected political prisoners under the apartheid regime in South Africa come to mind. There are many platitudes about good governance that are too often honored in the breach and could be enforced more effectively by a combination of better institutional design and greater savagery in punishing breach of trust, but they are platitudes and need no belaboring. What may need more belaboring is how difficult good institutional design actually is, and how beset with vicious circles its implementation can be. It is easy to declare ourselves in favor of transparency and accountability, as I am, but it is very hard to create mechanisms of accountability that cannot be circumvented, subverted, or ignored. Anticorruption regulations also need to be supported by the local political culture if they are not to be dead letters. Making demands of public opinion raises large issues of time and attention; human beings have short attention spans, limited powers of concentration, and a host of different matters calling for their attention. Walter Lippmann’s Phantom Public is almost 90 years old but could have been written yesterday, and its title tells us all we need to know. No standard model of accountability is wholly capable of dealing with those constraints. Familiar devices meet some problems — random spot checks can ensure that nobody is skimming at the checkout — but with an outfit the size of Citibank or Walmart, such devices are hard to organize and easy to undermine. With enterprises such as arms manufacturers facing third world governments and a host of intermediaries expecting their payoffs, the job becomes almost impossible.

Transparency is certainly needed to suppress corruption; accountability is impossible if those who stand in temptation’s way don’t have to produce accurate and complete accounts, don’t run the risk of facing public hearings on the accuracy of their accounts, aren’t properly audited, and so on. Up to the point of simple information overload, making all this public is a useful procedure. It can be a pain in the neck if you are running something like a small college and have to spend a lot of your time explaining where the college’s income goes and where it comes from in the first place, but it is income entrusted to you for a purpose, and those who directly or indirectly contribute to it have a right to know that it’s spent on what it ought to be spent on. But transparency takes one only so far.

Consider the contemporary American political system. Although there are areas of the funding of political campaigns where more transparency would help — preventing donors of large sums of money from hiding behind a veil of anonymity — there is no great difficulty in discovering who has funded particular members of Congress. Nor is there any great difficulty in connecting that funding to the voting record of the members of Congress, either. The difficulty is that there is no consensus on what corruption is. A substantial part of the population thinks it is the job of a member of Congress to lobby the government on behalf of the particular districts and economic interests to which they have given their allegiance. One person will think that receiving $300,000 from the makers of medical devices and then doing one’s damnedest to get the Affordable Care Act’s tax on such devices repealed is corrupt — essentially, selling one’s vote. Another may think that since the device maker operates in the district you represent, your duty is to fight for the firm and its employees. To put it another way, flagrant, gold-plated, universally condemned corruption is something that greater transparency would root out. Contestable corruption is another matter; clean-up campaigns work only when there is a moral consensus behind them, and it is an understatement to say that we do not live in an age of moral consensus.

This is an excerpt from an article published in Social Research, Vol. 80: No. 4: Winter 2013.