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.