My Fellow Americans: Please Never, Ever Say (or Imply) That the United States Is the Only Country that Tries To Do Something About Corruption

In my last post, I cautioned those of us who talk about corruption to be careful to avoid saying – even casually – that “everyone” in this or that country is corrupt, not only because that statement is incorrect, but also because it’s offensive and counterproductive. I realize that it wasn’t the most important of topics, but language matters, and the political sensitivity of corruption means that those of us from wealthier countries should be especially careful about the language that we use. (Think about David Cameron’s “fantastically corrupt” gaffe at last spring’s London Anti-Corruption Summit for an example of how poorly chosen words can get in the way of substantive engagement.) That’s not to say we should shy away from accurately describing and criticizing systemic corruption where it exists; it’s just a caution against careless hyperbole.

In that (perhaps trivial and nit-picky) spirit, I want to call attention to something else I’ve heard now several times from U.S. speakers at anticorruption conferences, which strikes me as extraordinarily arrogant, offensive, and incorrect. It goes like this:

  • American speaker gets up before multinational audience to talk about the U.S. approach to fighting corruption and, in an apparent effort to defuse precisely the risk of condescension that I’m complaining about, says something like, “Now, one thing we learn from the U.S. experience is that we have a corruption problem too. Corruption is a problem everywhere, including in the United States.”
  • OK, so far so good. But then the American speaker says, “The difference is that in the United States, we try to do something about it.”

Ugh. Is it possible to imagine a more ham-handed, condescending thing to say, especially to a multinational audience? I mean, look, I think that the U.S., for all its faults, can be justly proud of its law enforcement efforts to fight domestic corruption, particularly the role of the FBI, Department of Justice, and federal judiciary. While the U.S. is far from perfect, it’s my view that the culture of impunity pervasive in many parts of the world is, as a relative matter, not nearly as bad in the U.S. And I do think other countries can learn from the U.S. experience. But to suggest that the United States stands alone in its willingness to try to do something about corruption is (A) obviously factually incorrect, and (B) insulting to the hardworking, often heroic men and women in other countries who are fighting against corruption every day, and to the governments in at least some of those countries that have made anticorruption a priority, but are having trouble making progress due to a range of factors (severe resource constraints, powerful entrenched interests, complicated political situations, etc).

And really, what purpose is served, substantively or rhetorically, by saying, “The difference is that in the U.S. we try to do something about corruption”? The speech that follows that opening line would be just as effective if the speaker just said, “Now, one thing we learn from the U.S. experience is that we have a corruption problem too. Corruption is a problem everywhere, including in the United States. But the U.S. experience in our struggle with corruption – both the things we’ve done well, and the challenges and limitations of our approach – may provide some useful lessons for others engaged in a similar struggle.”

OK, OK, I know that this is beyond trivial, and I promise in future posts I’ll return to weightier topics. But this has just been bugging me, so I thought I’d get it off my chest.

5 thoughts on “My Fellow Americans: Please Never, Ever Say (or Imply) That the United States Is the Only Country that Tries To Do Something About Corruption

  1. It would have been more enlightening if Matthew has dwelt something on, what I heard, American way of “legitimizing corruption” if it cannot be cured. I have borrowed this idea from, I suppose, Susan Rose Ackerman’s book. Let me cite an example here: In Nepal, to avoid pressure (that is corruption) in the issue of passports, the government introduced two track systems – one ordinary system where you may normal fee and wait for the ages to deliver passports and two, fast track system where you pay double the fee and get the passport made within a week. I am sure this fast track system is an American idea or an invention. Even with the introduction of this system, there is no reduction in the pressure, therefore, recently the government introduced super fast track system where you pay triple fee and have the passport made within three days. I see this as a state legitimizing corruption, that too, in the name of fast service delivery. Debate on substantive issues like this would be really meaningful.
    I beg apology if this idea of legitimizing corruption is not an American invention. But I am sure I have read this somewhere else.

    • If I understand the example you give, I don’t think I’d really count it as “legitimizing corruption.” If the fee for fast processing is going to the state (not to the individual bureaucrat), then I’m not sure I see what’s so wrong with this. I suppose that there might be a problem here if the state decided to introduce the special fees for fast service instead of addressing corruption in the usual process, or — worse — if the state tacitly condoned the existing corruption precisely because it created incentives for more people to pay the exorbitant extra processing fees. But to my mind, the mere existence of a formal fee for faster service is not in itself corrupt, and is qualitatively different from so-called “speed money” paid directly to a bureaucrat to get the bureaucrat to do the work he’s supposed to do without extra payment.

  2. I am not so sure these topics are “not so important”. One may indeed think your remarks trivial but the trivial is often the elephant in the room. That the truths you share in this and the previous post are counterproductive to anti-corruption is not something anyone is going to dispute. But “counterproductive” may be a serious understatement. They may be among the more, even most important impediments to anti-corruption efforts. Blatently untrue descriptions of reality tend to fare badly as bases for action. As an aside:claiming the trivial untruth that the US stands out internationally because of its anti-corruption efforts is not only ‘ arrogant’, ‘offensive’, ‘ham-handed’ and ‘condescending’ (the effect of which is directly counterproductive), by being so overtly untrue, something that any multinational audience is going to be very aware of, is going to diminish listener attention to/belief in anything sensible that may follow. I have the distinct impression that American (and European for that matter) the credibility of claims to much superior governance and institutional quality has eroded quite dramatically in the last decade in the international arena. Eroded to the extent that anyone making such claims to multinational audiences is going to be seen as not really addressing them but their home constituency. If someone is not really talking to you but addressing a rally back home one tends not to take the substance seriously.

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