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. Continue reading