America’s Pursuit of Absolute Integrity

Attempts to control corruption have a long history in the United States.  Since the late 19th century numerous laws have been enacted at the federal, state, and local level to end patronage and nepotism in government employment, control conflicts of interest by public servants, and reduce opportunities for bribery and kick-backs.  Although the current corruption landscape differs from that of 20th century America, policymakers considering anticorruption legislation today can profit from a look at the U.S. experience.

A useful, if sobering, place to start is with Professors Frank Anechiarico and James B. Jacobs’ 1997 analysis based on New York City’s century long effort to combat corruption supplemented by the federal government’s more recent experience with ethics laws.  Useful because the authors analyze many of the same interventions now commonly advocated to combat corruption around the globe: conflict of interest legislation, financial disclosure requirements for public servants, whistleblower protection, the creation of inspectors general, the reduction of officials’ discretion.  Sobering, not only because they conclude these reforms have done little to combat corruption, but also because the authors contend that together these laws have contributed to the current dysfunctional state of American government.  In short, they say, America’s effort to suppress corruption has produced little benefit at great cost.

The title of Anechiarco and Jacobs’ book — The Pursuit of Absolute Integrity: How Corruption Control Makes Government Ineffective – neatly states their argument.  Prompted by the scandal de jour, American policymakers have in effect if not by design sought a government free of any corruption, one of “absolute integrity” through imposing progressively more controls on their public servants in order to hold them to ever higher standards of accountability.  But as scholars of public administration have long recognized, a trade-off exists between accountability and government effectiveness.  The authors quote the late Peter Self, a student of what is today called “governance”:  “The tensions between the requirements of responsibility or accountability and those of effective executive action can reasonably be described as the classic dilemma of public administration.”

Neither Self, nor the long list of other public administration scholars the authors cite to buttress their case, say that U.S. policymakers have been wrong in seeking an accountable government.  Rather, as Anechiarico and Jacobs explain, the mistake the lawmakers have made has been the failure to appreciate the trade-off between accountability and effectiveness, a failure that resulted from their pursuing corruption control to the exclusion of all else — in other words, to pursue it “absolutely.”

The chapters are rich with details of how and where American anticorruption policies have gone wrong.  The effect of New York City’s maze of procurement “reforms” has been to reduce competition while depriving procurement professionals of the ability to choose the firm offering the city the best value.  Over the last 100 years scores of employees of the city department responsible for issuing building permits and setting construction standards have been investigated, arrested, monitored, or targeted for string operations; during the same period 18 corruption scandals, or one on average of every three years, have been uncovered.

My favorite example of ineffectiveness, because of my own skepticism of their efficacy in developing nations, is the account of the city’s financial disclosure laws.  These laws, again a maze of statutes piled one on top of another in response to revelations of wrongdoing, require thousands of employees to reveal their and their family’s finances in the name of controlling corruption.  Perhaps the lost privacy, which one public servant likened to having to use a public bathroom without a stall door, would be worth it had the laws helped curb corruption.  Yet despite the millions invested in enforcing them, in the 18 years they had been in effect as of the authors’ writing, only three individuals had been caught for intentionally violating them.

Not every modern day corruption hunter will find the authors’ case airtight.  Even if they do, they may not be persuaded that other nations are destined to repeat the U.S. experience.  But every fair-minded reader will come away with a more measured appraisal of what ethics and anticorruption legislation can realize and a greater awareness of their possible deleterious, if unintended, consequences.

The Pursuit of Absolute Integrity is not simply a council of despair, for its authors suggest several ways corruption can be controlled without compromising government effectiveness  — grist for a later post.

2 thoughts on “America’s Pursuit of Absolute Integrity

  1. Thank you for your post Rick–reading this in conjunction with your post about the new Chinese construction bank, as well as a recent New York Times “Opinionator” piece entitled “From China, With Pragmatism” has been thought-provoking.

    The author of the above-mentioned piece is a philosopher currently living in Beijing, and he basically argues that Americans need to embrace our Pragmatic roots–as he argues the Chinese have. He notes that Pragmatism was heavily influenced by Darwinism, such that its adherents believed that our sense of ethics ought to be adaptable, not static and dogmatic. I wonder if this is what your post here is driving at–we Americans have dogmatically adhered to an “absolute integrity” model of ethics that is simply unattainable, and perhaps even undesirable. As the author of the NYTimes piece points out, there are many instinctively compelling reasons why certain practices (like the giving of hongbao) should not be the target of anticorruption advocates.

    But how does this lesson fit with our broader mission here? I eagerly await future posts that elucidate “several ways corruption can be controlled without compromising government effectiveness” (or perhaps I should just read the book), but my sense is that this is not an easy balance to achieve.

    To press my point here, I would argue that if we combine the lesson of “The Pursuit of Absolute Integrity” with the Chinese “pragmatist” example, we basically arrive at a place where it may make perfect sense to, say, include China in the OECD Anti-Bribery Convention. Perhaps they could lead the charge to “name and shame” the U.S. for having spent a miserable 100 years failing to stamp out so-called corruption, and for wishing the same misery on other nations.

  2. Rick,

    I wholeheartedly agree that we always need to consider trade-offs, and in particular the ways that corruption control can trade off with other values, like government effectiveness. (That was one of the reasons I criticized TI Chair Huguette Labelle’s call for a “zero tolerance” approach to corruption in an earlier post.)

    That said, I think we need to be skeptical of the claim that these various ethics rules have not had an effect on corruption. The evidence for this claim — at least the evidence you note in the post — comes in two forms: (1) during the time control measure X has been in place, there have still been lots of corruption scandals; (2) during the time control measure Y has been in place, only a handful of individuals have been caught violating measure Y.

    The big problem with these sorts of evidence is that the question we’re asking is a counter-factual question — What would have happened if these control measures had not been in place? No sensible person believes that any particular corruption control measure will _eliminate_ corruption, so the fact that it still exists doesn’t tell us whether the measure has been effective in reducing it. One presumably wouldn’t say that the police force is a waste of money, because even when the police force existed in New York City, there were still hundreds of crimes.

    Also, many of these measures — including the financial disclosure measures about which you are skeptical — are supposed to operate via deterrence. So the fact that relatively few people have been charged for violating them doesn’t mean they haven’t been effective.

    To be clear, I don’t think I disagree with your main point here, but we need to be careful about sweeping statements to the effect that this or that measure “hasn’t worked”.

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