Last week Matthew wrote that too much time and energy has been wasted trying to define corruption. While I agree, I don’t think sufficient attention has been paid to why so many spend so much time arguing about what “corruption” means. Matthew pointed to the reason in one of the first posts on this blog but stopped just short of the explanation. Let me take the last, short step in the hopes it will end the interminable, unproductive wrangling over definitions.
In the earlier post Matthew wrote that corruption “implies a deviation from some ideal state” and hence “involves an implicit or explicit selection of a baseline standard of ‘correct’ behavior.” He went on to explain that in the corruption literature the three most common baselines are the law, public opinion, and public interest. “Corruption” can then be conduct that deviates from what the law provides, that diverges from what the public thinks is wrongful, or that is at odds with the public interest. The definition of “corruption” depends upon the baseline; each baseline, as Matthew explained, leads to a different approach to defining “corruption.”
With one slight emendation, Matthew is correct. But I think making that correction is important for taking the analysis the next step and, I hope, ending, or at least reducing, fruitless debate over definitions.
Matthew wrote in his first post on definition that “’corruption’ implies a deviation from an ideal state.” Not quite. As its etymology shows, “corruption” does not imply a deviation from an ideal. Rather, deviation from an ideal is the core meaning of term. The original Latin, and the Old French word from which the term “corruption” passed into English, both convey the idea of spoliation or impurity. That sense is most clearly captured in one of the secondary definitions of “corruption” in modern English. When a computer file is damaged in transmission, the file is said to be “corrupt” or “corrupted.”
This secondary meaning of the term shows why an agreed upon definition of corruption remains beyond our reach. If an Adobe Acrobat file sent across the internet won’t open, it means the file is not in its ideal state. Computer users don’t debate whether the file is corrupt or not. They have a clear standard against for deciding the question: Adobe Reader can’t open it. Hence the file is corrupt. Period.
No “Adobe test” exists for determining whether a polity is corrupt because there is no agreement on the characteristics of an ideal polity. The continuing furor over Plato’s vision of the ideal polity is one reminder; a contemporary one is the interminable debate in the United States about the financing of political campaigns. One vision of the ideal is the current system: anyone can speak as much or as loudly about issues of the day as they please and spend as much they can afford advocating the election of candidates they choose: truth will out. Another is one where no citizen should have more influence than the next: equality first. Many proponents of the latter view claim that because current American policy deviates from their vision of the ideal state, the American polity is corrupt.
The point is that at bottom “corruption” is a normative term. This normativeness is sometimes masked because in many instances there is no debate about what the ideal is. No one disagrees, or at least no longer disagrees, that in the ideal polity public servants should make decisions free from the influence of secret payments by interested parties. Hence there is no argument that bribery is “corrupt.” But in many areas — campaign finance in the U.S., gift giving in other nations – no consensus on the ideal has been reached; no Adobe test has yet been developed. And until one is, or more accurately emerges as a result of an agreement on the underlying values at stake, argument about definitions will continue.
I think it would be to everyone’s benefit if arguments about definitions were re-framed as arguments about what the ideal state should be. It would first of all help to cool the rhetoric if the politically loaded charge of “corruption” were wielded less often. It would also improve the quality of the debate. Rather than defining some policy or conduct as “corrupt,” those seeking change would do better by showing why the ideal state they prefer is superior to the prevailing one. Who knows — casting the issue this way might even enhance their chances of bringing the change they seek.