The American Supreme Court’s recent decision that confusion over what constitutes corruption entitles former Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell to a new trial again illustrates how critical it is that “corruption” be precisely defined. As Matthew explained yesterday, the Court in McDonnell ruled that the definition the jury was given to decide whether the former governor had broken the law was too broad. The justices feared that were such a definition allowed to stand, public servants would shy away from doing their duties for fear they could be accused of “corruption.” While Matthew argues that in McDonnell this fear was misplaced, there are instances where it is not. Take Indonesia. Bureaucrats there are refusing to spend billions of dollars on legally approved projects ranging from schools and hospitals to garbage trucks and parking meters because they fear it would open them to investigation for the vaguely defined corruption crimes as “abuse of office.”
As I have argued on this blog, the problem begins with the term “corruption.” As passed down from Latin to Old French and into English, the word carries the idea of something that has spoiled or become impure. Milk left in the heat too long sours or is “corrupted.” But while there is no mistaking when milk has gone sour, the endless debates over whether such (lawful) practices as private donations to political candidates are “corrupt” shows that when applied to politics and government, “corruption” is in the eye of the beholder.
But not all languages derive their expression for “corruption” from Latin, and thus not all languages are saddled with the subjective meaning the Latin imparts to the modern-day term. Take ສໍ້ລາດບັງຫຼວງ‘ – the Laotian term for corruption.
In Roman letters, the Lao word for corruption is solatbanglouang. Laotians explain that this is a compound word made up of three parts. The first part, “solat,” means to take from the people; the second, “bang,” means to hide, and “louang” refers to royalty. The sense of the three together then is of someone taking money from the people and hiding it from the government. The speculation is that the word originated from tax collectors — perhaps private, perhaps local — who cheated central, royal governments out of the taxes they were due.
Whether correct or not (and comments from students of Lao or other Tai-Kadi languages earnestly solicited), the term comes much closer to describing corrupt conduct than corruptus, the past participle of the Latin corrumpere. Take for example the conduct at issue in the McDonald case. There is no question that, while serving as governor of Virginia, McDonnell took money from a businessman. Nor is there any question that he hid the receipt of this money from others in the Virginia government.
To be sure, if McDonnell had been tried using the Laotian definition of corruption, his defense could have argued that the money he took wasn’t “from the people” in the same way that a crooked tax collector takes money from the people. But the prosecution could well have replied that, even accepting that interpretation, by taking money from a private citizen to work on that person’s behalf, the now disgraced governor had “taken” money from the citizens of Virginia by spending time not on his duties as governor but on promoting the private interests of one individual.
Perhpas in the spirit of language ecumencalism, the American Supreme Court will look beyond Indo-European sources when thinking about how terms like corruption should be understood. I realize that the learned justices may find that solatbanglouang doesn’t roll off the tongue quite as easily as corruption, but with time and practice (in my case much practice) they will find that it will. And it certainly offers a better starting point for determining what constitutes corruption than corrumpere.