Guest Post: The Metaphysics of “Corruption” (or, The Fundamental Challenge to Comparative Corruption Measurement)

GAB is pleased to welcome back Jacob Eisler, Lecturer at Cambridge University, who contributes the following guest post:

A couple months back, Matthew Stephenson and Michael Johnston engaged in a lively debate on the question of if aggregate-level data of corruption is useful, focusing on the appropriate level of methodological skepticism that should be directed towards large-scale efforts to quantify corruption (see here, here, here, and here). While this debate touched on a number of fascinating questions regarding how to best treat data regarding corruption, it has drifted away from why Michael had a concern with overly aggressive quantification in the first place: Actually addressing corruption requires a “standard of goodness,” and the difficulty in coming up with such a standard explains why the social sciences have faced a “longstanding inability to come to a working consensus over how to define corruption.” In other words, when we talk about corruption, we are inevitably talking about something bad that suggests the vitiation or distortion of something good. It is difficult to conceptualize corruption except as a distortion of a non-objectionable political process—that is, political practice undertaken with integrity. This need not mean that there must be some shared first-order property of good governance; but it does suggest that there is a shared property to distorted or corrupted governance that must derive from some shared property of all politics.

If this idea of a “shared feature” is taken seriously, it would suggest those who argue for the value of comparative corruption metrics are making a very strong claim: that if you are comparing corruption within a country, or across countries, all the relevant polities and types of practice must have some shared feature, deviation from which counts as corruption. This shared feature in turn would be an aspect of governance. It could be any number of constants in human society – a constant feature of morality in governance, or tendencies of human anthropology. But in any case, this is a very distinctive and powerful claim, and one that requires strong assumptions or assertions regarding the nature of governance. To weave this back to the original dispute, our willingness to rely on quantitative metrics should depend on our level of commitment to our faith in this constant feature of politics that makes corruption a transferable, or, more aggressively put, “universal” thing. Our use of these homogenizing empirical metrics implies that we are committed to the robustness of the constant feature. Yet it doesn’t seem like this conceptual work has been done.

To take this down to another level of granularity: Matthew has insisted that bribery is seen as wrong pretty much cross-culturally. But this claim itself doesn’t have any meaning, for bribery always occurs within a cultural context of violating certain fair procedures. Now it may be that there are shared properties to all political procedures (even as they are deeply cross-culturally different) such that it is appropriate to speak of them as being corrupted in a way that is uniform enough to permit comparison. But this requires a bold second-order claim: that all political procedures have a certain uniformity of at least some quality. It is useful here to contrast corruption with other types of entities we might want to compare, such as GDP and cancer. GDP has the shared feature of all being changed into one currency; cancer has the shared feature of representing a deviation from a state of “health,” which in turn is based in the fact that all human bodies have many aspects of flourishing (“health”) that is relatively constant across persons. (There might be some blurriness at the margins – maybe you’re naturally a sprinter and I’m naturally a shotputter so our ideal bodies look different, but our basic functions are all the same.), It may be that corruption can be compared like these two attributes; but if that’s the case, I’d like to see an indication of what those shared features are. This relates back to Michael’s original point: We shouldn’t be worried about corruption comparisons, but rather should focus on building stable societies, ensuring responsible leadership, and so forth – the real universals of good governance. By worrying about a second-order feature (“corruption”) that probably requires some violence of abstraction in order to express empirically, we are perhaps distracted from that goal.

I think this shows that the debate between Michael and Matthew should point to some deep and difficult questions regarding the character of corruption, and one that empirical analysis alone can’t solve. We need a theory of the “metaphysics” of corruption that indicates what shared attribute of human politics or socialization is distorted by corrupt behavior, such that true cross-national and cross-cultural comparisons are possible.

3 thoughts on “Guest Post: The Metaphysics of “Corruption” (or, The Fundamental Challenge to Comparative Corruption Measurement)

  1. Fascinating claim. How does this relate to Simon Deakin’s (also at Cambridge) work on the ‘ontology of corruption’?

    It reminds me of changing law on campaign finance in the US. In Austin, a case in 1990, the Supreme Court discussed how, when corporations spend huge amounts of money on election expenditures, they can distort and corrode the ‘marketplace of ideas’ and the outcome of the election. In other words, too much corporate money results in market failure and screws up the results of the election. In 2003, in McConnell, the Supreme Court barely upheld a similar expenditure limit saying that there is a compelling interest in preventing the appearance of corruption. However, once 2010 came around, the Supreme Court had moved further to the right, and they decided that there is NO interest in preventing ‘the appearance of corruption’, all that matters is quid pro quo exchanges of political favors for campaign money. In fact, corporations capable of buying more access to candidates were now, by their understanding, just participating in a robust democracy. By Citizens United in 2010, the justices were openly mocking the anti-distortion arguments that held so much sway 20 years before. The Supreme Court thus changed the legal meaning of corruption over a short period of time. And many in the US would argue that the legal definition of corruption resulting from campaign finance laws is unaligned with their own definition of corruption.

    • Hi Michael,

      Thanks for this. Simon’s work on the cultural context of corruption is quite strongly related, in particular insofar as it illustrates how the concept of corruption can change in accordance with changes in social coordination mechanisms. If a society depends on less formal – or simply optically different – mechanisms for establishing trust and discouraging defection from mutually beneficial practices, it may appear corrupt to a distinct system.

      Re: your comment about the anti-distortion rationale, I guess what I find remarkable is the degree to which the right wing of the Court coherently turned on the principles of Austin, and the left, while seemingly remaining committed to them, failed to articulate a coherent normative justification for the anti-distortion rationale (I talk about the foundations of this problem some in section I.B.3 of the following –



  2. This great exchange does indeed point to some deep and difficult questions regarding the character of corruption. But it also reminds us that we really do need quantitative data on corruption, not just for academic studies, but directly in order to address the problem, in just the way that Michael Johnston was concerned.

    Speaking as a practitioner currently working in Afghanistan as an International Commissioner on the Anti-Corruption Committee, it can help hugely to have quantified indexes…provided that they are at a level of granularity below the national aggregate level. For example, with cross-country data, how do we compare on health corruption with other conflict-torn countries, or on corruption in high school education, and what are the reasons that distinguish our situation from the other countries? With in-country data, the sort of work being published now on corruption across the different Ministries within Eastern European countries is exactly what we need in Afghanistan. The quantification has the ability not only to inform us in detail of the reasons for the differences, but more importantly it can coalesce people into driving political change that will make something positive happen.

    Regarding sector-specific data, there has been a big development in the defence sector. Transparency International has got below the national level into a sector-specific and more technical defence index. Applying this to 130 countries and seeing the impact, the power of such an index to enable further change has been obvious. For reformers within the country, it gives them a metric that they can use to drive the change; it gives them a way to see if things are better than 2 years ago; and it gives them a way of peer reviewing their country with their neighbours. (See Transparency International’s defence sector methodology and results –

    Such sector-specific indices also allow a deeper understanding of how the corruption issues vary by culture or by country. For example, the defence index identifies 29 quite different types of corruption issues in defence. So, for example, corruption in defence procurement is a very common corruption issue in rich countries, but it is almost irrelevant in poor or fragile ones, because they have no money for large capital expenditures. Conversely, rich countries have little organised crime infiltration of their Defence Ministries, but this is a major cause of corruption in West African countries, who suffer from being passage countries for drugs coming to Europe. Their military airfields are taken over by the narcotics groups, who control them by controlling elements of the Defence Ministry.

    The corruption issues in rich countries like the US and the UK are quite different from those in Afghanistan, and the normative ways that the definition of corruption changes will also be different. But the need for quantitative comparison is still there as a crucial vehicle in making improvement happen, regardless of the definitional challenges.

    So can we have lots more comparative corruption measurement, but at more detailed levels, either inside a country across agencies, or cross-country on a sectoral basis.

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