I’ve noticed something about the way many people (including me) sometimes describe the severity of the corruption problem in many parts of the world: When calling attention to the problem of widespread, systemic corruption, it’s not uncommon to hear people say—usually in casual conversation, occasionally in more formal presentations—that in this or that country, or this or that government or department, “everyone” is corrupt, or “everybody” takes bribes, or similar. I’m sure I’ve used this or similar language myself, without even thinking about it. And I understand that when most people say things like “everyone in [X] is corrupt,” they don’t mean that literally. Yet I find myself increasingly bothered by statements like this, for several reasons:
- First, it’s not true. Even in countries where corruption is widespread, the percentage of the population that has had to pay a bribe is well below 100%. That’s not to deny that fact that the numbers from corruption-experience surveys like Transparency International’s Global Corruption Barometer are really, really bad in many countries. But even the countries that do worst on these statistics have substantial percentages of the population that have not paid bribes. As for governments, or individual government departments, it’s harder to tell, as there isn’t as much data, but my very strong hunch is that even in government departments with widespread, systemic corruption, there are quite a few people of integrity who do not participate in that corruption. Now, maybe many of them are passive bystanders, and maybe the honest ones find themselves marginalized. But I don’t think it’s true (and we should be careful of asserting without evidence) that “every” civil servant in a given department is involved in corrupt activity.
- Second, there’s a very real worry that casual use of the everyone-is-corrupt language—particularly when thrown around without hard evidence—can contribute to a wholly unintentional but nonetheless pernicious form of bias, particularly against populations in poor countries with predominantly non-European cultural backgrounds. Here, an analogy might be helpful: In many poor, predominantly minority inner-city neighborhoods in the United States, rates of crime and drug use are relatively high, especially among young men. That’s just a fact—one that should cause serious concern—and it’s not racist to point it out. But if I were to casually remark (say, at a conference on anti-crime policies in the U.S.), “Of course, all young men in the inner cities are involved in drug gangs,” I would be rightly castigated. I’m not sure it’s much different if I were to casually remark, at an anticorruption conference, that “everyone in Nigeria pays bribes” (or even, “every Nigerian bureaucrat takes bribes”). In both cases, there’s a subtle but important distinction: Stating (accurately) that rates of a particular form of malfeasance are high in a particular population is not only acceptable but important; stating (inaccurately) that “everyone” in a particular community is engaged in malfeasance sounds like a claim that people of that sort are inherently predisposed to that bad activity. And that sort of stereotyping is something we should try to avoid.
- Third, the belief that corruption is widespread can be self-reinforcing. There’s a fair bit of academic work now (see, for example, here and here) that makes this intuitive point: When people believe that “everyone” is engaged in supposedly improper conduct, the norms against that conduct erode; people feel less shame, and are less likely to be criticized or shunned, for doing something that “everyone” is doing. So when we exaggerate the frequency of corrupt activities in a given country or organization, we may contribute to the erosion of those norms. Now, this does raise a kind of ethical conundrum—such a dilemma might arise, for example, corruption is indeed very high in a given organization, but we’re worried that providing an honest and public assessment of that corruption will actually make it worse. But often there is no such tension, because it is not in fact empirically true that “everyone” (or anywhere close to everyone) is actually engaging in corrupt activities. At the very least, if we don’t have strong evidence on that point, we should be very careful about making sweeping claims about what “everybody” is doing.
To be clear, none of this is to deny that in many countries, and many individual organizations and departments, corruption is a very serious problem. It is not to deny that “systemic” corruption exists, nor that we should talk about it frankly. It is not even to deny that in some limited cases, an entire organization or group (say, the ruling clique of a kleptocracy) is corrupt. Rather, I want to make two much more modest suggestions. First, where possible we should base our claims about widespread or systemic corruption on evidence (hard numbers where possible, though of course that’s not always feasible), rather than second-hand stereotypes. Second, we should (except in special extreme cases) avoid casual statements to the effect that “everyone” in a given group is corrupt—especially when we’re talking about a large group, and certainly when we’re talking about a whole country. Better to say that corruption is “widespread” or “systemic” or “pervasive.” Even where corruption is indeed pervasive, there are some—often many—who avoid or resist it. Let’s acknowledge their existence, and encourage them, by this small change in how we talk about the problem.