On Differing Understandings of “Corruption”

I’m sometimes asked how my work on anticorruption (and this blog) relates to the work of my Harvard Law School colleague Larry Lessig, who is the Director of Harvard University’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics (and who also has a widely-read blog). Under Larry’s leadership, the Safra Center has been focused primarily on “institutional corruption,” and Larry’s 2011 book Republic, Lost likewise focuses on how money corrupts the U.S. Congress. So, what’s the relationship between our two projects?

The short answer is that, although I respect and admire Larry’s work, our corruption projects are about very different things. By itself that’s not terribly interesting, and I wouldn’t bother posting about it except that I think the differences in our projects highlight a longstanding difficulty about the term “corruption” and its use in social science and political advocacy. I don’t want to belabor the issue—when academics run out of ideas, they argue about definitions—but maybe a few quick observations on this point are in order.

First of all, “corruption” implies deviation from some ideal state, and so defining corruption usually involves an implicit or explicit selection of a baseline standard of “correct” behavior. The three most common possibilities—none entirely satisfactory—are:

  1. Law (“corruption” entails violation of specific legal prohibitions on, say, bribery, nepotism, embezzlement, etc.)
  2. Public opinion (“corruption” involves acts, or patterns of behavior, that would be viewed by most citizens as wrongful abuses of power, whether or not they are illegal)
  3. Public interest (“corruption” involves acts, or patterns of behavior, that contravene the public interest—whether or not the actions in question are illegal and/or the subject of widespread disapproval).

In a future post, I might go into greater detail on the strengths and weaknesses of these different approaches to defining corruption. (They all have problems.) For now, it’s sufficient to note that they are potentially quite different from one another (though they may often overlap—certain types of bribery or theft of public resources are typically illegal, widely condemned, and contrary to the public interest). Larry’s working definition of “institutional corruption” is very much a “public interest” definition:

“Institutional corruption is manifest when there is a systemic and strategic influence which is legal, or even currently ethical, that undermines the institution’s effectiveness by diverting it from its purpose or weakening its ability to achieve its purpose, including, to the extent relevant to its purpose, weakening either the public’s trust in that institution or the institution’s inherent trustworthiness.”

Indeed, Larry has developed the category of “institutional corruption” precisely to differentiate it from “other more familiar forms of corruption” which are specifically excluded from his definition. (It’s worth noting that he is not alone in advancing this sort of understanding of corruption; in recent work the anthropologist Janine Wedel has advocated a similar “public interest” definition, though her definition is capacious enough also to include more traditional forms of illegal corruption.)

By contrast, this blog focuses on what we might think of as more traditional forms of corruption—bribery, embezzlement, extortion, nepotism, misappropriation of resources, etc.—which are usually either illegal or widely condemned, or both. I have no interest in insisting on a particular definition as the correct one, or in policing the boundaries of what we consider topical. It’s more a matter of clarification.

Now, one might reasonably ask whether any of this is all that important. Corruption is a term, like many others, that has a range of different meanings. As long as those who use the term are sufficiently clear about what meaning they have in mind, why does it matter what gets labeled “corrupt”? That’s more or less my view, but I do think there are two reasons it’s important to take seriously these conflicts over the definition of corruption:

  • First, people are not, in fact, always clear about what they mean by “corruption”—this is true, for example, of a number of widely-used corruption indices, which rely on asking experts or average citizens about their perception of the extent of “corruption,” usually without defining the term (or using a vague, capacious definition).
  • Second, in ordinary speech the word “corruption” is not just a descriptive term, but connotes moral condemnation. So there’s a political aspect to what gets labeled “corruption,” even if, for social scientific research, the word (if appropriately and clearly defined) can be treated as a neutral term of art. I think that’s precisely the reason Larry invokes the concept of “institutional corruption” to describe a set of problems and issues (like the role of money in politics) that were already quite familiar. By relabeling certain acts or behavior patterns as “corrupt,” he and his colleagues at the Safra Center are trying to influence public opinion (and the law). Likewise, scholars like Wedel have pointed out that by labeling certain forms of nefarious influence (those more prevalent in poor countries, like bribery) as “corruption,” while treating other forms (those more prevalent in rich Western countries, like lobbying and campaign donations and shady influence networks) as outside the scope of “corruption,” we may create a distorted perception of patterns of undesirable influence on government decisions.

Nonetheless, while we need to be mindful of those concerns, it seems to me that there’s value in studying the causes and consequences of traditional forms of “corruption.” Doing so is not meant to convey an inherent normative judgment. Whether “corruption” (according to the legal and/or public opinion definitions) is good or bad–and whether corruption, so defined, is better or worse than other questionable forms of influence over decision-makers (like lawful lobbying or campaign contributions or social ties)–are matters for research, not matters of definition.

8 thoughts on “On Differing Understandings of “Corruption”

  1. Matthew’s discussion of corruption definitions glides by a question the Oscar-nominated movie “American Hustle” leaves with its audience: Was what Carmine Polito — the fictional mayor of Camden, New Jersey, in the movie — did corrupt?

    The movie takes place in the 1970s, when thoughts of turning Atlantic City into a gambling mecca were starting to circulate. Polito is an enthusiastic booster, believing that gambling will generate jobs for his impoverished black and Latino constituents in nearby Camden, but so far no investor has been willing to take the plunge. In the movie an FBI informant lures Polito into a scheme to persuade the mafia and what we later learn is a fake Middle Eastern sheik to invest in the project. A bribe is literally almost forced on Polito who is accepts with great trepidation and only because he is assured it will advance the project. He does not spend the money on himself but instead on a gathering where he convinces the sheik and the mafia to back the project. Just as he is celebrating the coming boom that will lift his constituents out of poverty, he is arrested. As he is led away in handcuffs he repeats what the movie has shown throughout: “the money was never me; it was always for my people.”

    Is Polito corrupt? Do the definitions Matthew reviews provide an unambiguous answer? What about the definition used by the World Bank and other development agencies: the use of public power for private gain?

  2. I haven’t seen the movie yet. (And Rick, thanks for ruining the ending! Don’t you know it’s good online etiquette these days to say “spoiler alert”?) But Rick’s raising a serious and important point, and the fictional-but-based-on-reality scenario he describes is actually useful in thinking through some of these issues. So, let me take a stab at a quick answer to Rick’s question.

    * Under a legal definition of corruption, Polito behaved corruptly. One of the nice features of the legalistic approach to understanding corruption is that it’s more likely to give a clear answer to the question whether behavior is corrupt. (Though it’s easy to overstate this — lots of times the law is ambiguous, and leaves a judge, jury, or enforcer to decide whether certain actions are “corrupt”, without much additional guidance as to what that means.) Another nice feature of the legalistic definition, which the movie example illustrates, is that we can sensibly ask the question whether “corruption” is good or bad, justified or unjustified. If corruption is defined as behavior that is bad and unjustified, that’s not a meaningful question. Of course the big downside is that by calling Polito’s behavior “corrupt”, we may imply (intentionally or unintentionally) moral condemnation, which is not necessarily what we mean.

    * Under a public interest definition of corruption, it’s much more difficult to say, though Rick’s summary of the movie leads me to believe that the movie, at least, wants us to think that maybe his behavior was *not* corrupt in that sense. The problem is that different people will have different views about whether–even if Polito’s aims were in fact noble–his means of pursuing them actually served the public interest. But if we’re using “corruption” in a moralistic sense, to describe a normative conclusion _about_ an action (as opposed to a positive description _of_ an action), then different people could reach different conclusions about whether Polito acted corruptly, even if we all agreed on what he did.

    * A public interest definition tries to split the difference, aiming for greater contextual/normative judgment than a legalistic definition, but also striving for more objectivity than a public interest definition, by asking how the relevant community (citizens? filmgoers?) views the actions in question, and then treating that as the prime determinant of whether the action is corrupt (regardless of what the law says, and regardless of what the analyst or commentator may personally think). Oftentimes this approach is useful–especially for “black” corruption, on which there would be widespread consensus. But in cases of “grey” corruption, where there might be stark differences of opinion (perhaps differences that reflect class, race, social, professional, or other divisions), this approach loses much of its traction. I think most of the corruption out there that the development community and the law enforcement community are worried about is actually pretty black. But the grey cases are more interesting, which may be why they’re better grist for dramatic films.

  3. I’m wondering if “corruption” is the appropriate word for what happens in Equatorial Guinea, say, or Zaire–in any country whose politics is structured along patron-client lines and dominated by a predatory state. If so, is it corruption in Lessig’s sense? In yours? In still a third version? Thx,

    • Good question. I don’t think we should get too hung up on definitions, but you’re getting at a really tricky problem. I think perhaps we should differentiate two features that you linked together–(1) politics structured on patron-client lines, and (2) a predatory state (i.e., kleptocracy). I think the second one is the easier case: kleptocratic states are corrupt in all three of the traditional senses: looting the public treasury and transferring the money to private offshore bank accounts is generally (1) illegal (though there may be a small number of exceptions to this); (2) widely condemned as corrupt by the citizens; and (3) detrimental to the public interest.

      Politics that’s structured along patron-client lines is a much trickier case, and all depends on how the patronage arrangements are structured. It’s in this space that the different ways of conceptualizing corruption start to pull in different directions. Some forms of patronage that are technically illegal may be widely viewed as legitimate. Some forms of patronage that are technically legal may be viewed by most citizens as corrupt. And of course there are still raging debates about whether all forms of patronage are necessarily undesirable.

      As I said in the post, it’s possible that this doesn’t really matter that much. As long as we’re clear about what’s doing on, it might not matter (for social scientists) whether we call this “corruption” or something else. But it might well matter if by calling this sort of politics “corruption” (or not), we are (1) lumping it together with other forms of behavior that may be importantly different, and/or (2) implying a moral judgment.

  4. Thanks Mathew for this post and the discussion it triggered. Fostering a common understanding of “corruption”, among stakeholders whom I work with in the Arab states, is a major challenge. As you rightly point out, it is far more than an academic matter, and perhaps, in the context of this region, a matter of critical importance for its future. After breaking the long-standing taboo, and capitalizing on the international anti-corruption movement, peoples of the region are now rethinking the Social Contract and imagining the kind of State they would like to have, strong, just, and responsive to their needs. The feeling that corruption is a major obstacle is widespread. And although anti-corruption efforts are multiplying, concrete progress appears to be below expectations. For that, there are many reasons of course; but perhaps, and to the point of this blog, one of those reasons is the gap that exists between the different understandings of “corruption”, especially between the few who are driving anti-corruption advocacy efforts in the region, and the rest of the population, which is failing to “own” these efforts and see them through. The current discussion on anti-corruption, by and large, seems abstract to the lay person. It is neither coherent with the way she understands the term “corruption” (fasad) in light of the prevalent religious-cultural influences, nor compatible with the way she perceives her interaction with family and friends, and certainly not suitable for getting her day-to-day business done with the State, be she an entrepreneur , a job seeker, or simply a citizen in need of a basic service. With time, I believe more investment should be made to foster a common understanding, among the different stakeholders, of “corruption” and ultimately how to confront it. Maybe, this is difficult, or even impossible, to do at the global and regional level, but perhaps it could be more feasible at the national level where the fight against corruption may as well mean the fight for a better future. Arkan

  5. It is not surprising that the definition of corruption is contested in many countries. As Matthew noted in his initial post, “corruption” implies a deviation from an ideal state of affairs. So agreement on the definition of corruption requires prior agreement on what constitutes an ideal state of affairs. But what is that ideal when it comes, say, to hiring public servants? That merit selection be used with all its admitted imperfections? Or that the positions be allocated by quota among the different ethnic or tribal groups that constitute the nation? By the way, what groups constitute the nation? Migrant workers? Those born in the territory of recent migrants?

    Putting it this way shows that until consensus is reached on the ideal state, there will never be a completely satisfactory definition of corruption. Fortunately, it is not an all or nothing proposition when it comes to defining corruption. Although complete consensus will always remain beyond reach, enormous progress has been made. Until relatively recently most countries did not consider it corruption for one of their companies to bribe a foreign public official. Today, the 170 state-parties to the United Nations Convention Against Corruption have pledged to make it a criminal offense to do so, and the 40 nation subset that are also parties to the OECD Antibribery Convention regularly submit to intrusive monitoring to ensure they are enforcing the law.

    • I think I agree with most of what you say, Rick, but not all of it. Here are the points of (potential) disagreement:

      You say that agreeing on a definition of corruption requires agreeing on an ideal state of affairs (from which corruption is a deviation). That’s would be more true for some conceptions of corruption — particularly “public interest” conceptions — than for others.

      Also, even for those understandings of corruption that do imply deviation from an “ideal” state of affairs, we may not need complete consensus on the ideal state to determine that certain behaviors are inconsistent with that ideal (and therefore corrupt). In this, corruption is not that much different from many other concepts that we use all the time. We may not have complete consensus on what counts as “democracy”, but we can still get pretty broad consensus that certain systems are undemocratic. The fact that we may not have complete consensus on what counts as “mental health” doesn’t stop us from diagnosing at least certain forms of mental illness.

      The larger point is that while I do think it’s important to be attentive to these conceptual and definitional issues, we also should be careful not to let the challenges of definition paralyze us. We’ll never achieve a perfect definition that comments 100% consensus. But so what? That’s true of most of the concepts we use every day. And while it would be a mistake to ignore the cultural/national differences in the understanding of corruption, it would also be a mistake to overstate those differences. Survey after survey shows that many forms of “black” corruption (bribery, embezzlement, etc.) are consistently condemned as corrupt across cultures. Sure, there’s some variation, but usually the variation is at the level of whether a particular form of bribery or conflict-of-interest is condemned as “corrupt” by 85% or 90% or 99% of the surveyed citizens.

  6. Readers looking for some closure on the definitional issue could do worse than consulting Michael Johnson’s very fine 2005 piece, “Keeping the Answers, Changing the Questions: Corruption Definitions Revisited,” (in U. von Alemann (ed.), Dimensionen politischer Korruption: Beiträge zum Stand der internntionalen Forschung (Wiesbaden: Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, 2005). Along with nice discussion of the history of the idea of corruption, he suggests a more fruitful, approach to the definition question:

    “Instead of asking ‘what is a corrupt act’, I suggest we ask systemic questions: what boundaries and distinctions – if any – exist between public and private domains, and between acceptable and unacceptable uses and connections between wealth and power, in various societies? The conflicts we will find in some places, and the ambiguities and more gradual changes that arise in others, will tell us a great deal about deeper processes of development and change. Those, I argue, are the reasons why corruption is worth studying to begin with.”

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