One of the great challenges in combating corruption—particularly systemic corruption that permeates an entire organization or institution—is figuring out how and why ordinary, well-meaning people would get caught up in activities that are blatantly unethical and usually unlawful. Yes, there are some greedy sociopaths out there, but most people at least like to think of themselves as good people. And yes, sometimes the sociopaths wield so much power that they can coerce collaboration or obedience—but in most cases, systemic corruption occurs only because a large number of people who think of themselves as basically decent end up doing (or at least tolerating and implicitly enabling) grotesquely unethical conduct.
We’ve had a few posts on this topic before (see, for example, here and here), and there’s a substantial and ever-growing body of academic literature, in fields like psychology and organizational sociology, which investigates this question. I’m still working through that literature and perhaps in a future post I’ll have something to say about the research findings. But today, I just wanted to share some insights on the question that originated in commentaries on a different topic: posts by Professor David Luban and by my colleague Professor Jack Goldsmith on the question of whether people of decency and integrity should be willing to serve in the Trump Administration. (Professor Luban’s published immediately after the election, Professor Goldsmith’s published in the wake of Trump’s abrupt firing of FBI Director James Comey last May.) Professors Luban’s and Goldsmith’s pieces are not about corruption, but rather about broader issues related to the challenges of serving a President who might push a policy agenda that many prospective appointees, though politically conservative, find abhorrent. Nonetheless, in reading these two pieces, I was struck by how much their analysis could apply, with only slight modifications, to how well-meaning individuals who join a corrupt organization (whether in the public or private sector) can end up compromising their integrity.
Below I’ll simply quote the relevant passages, with only minor edits to make their observations applicable to corruption (in a public or private organization), rather than creeping authoritarianism or a radical policy agenda:
First, from Professor Luban:
Once you are inside [the organization], your frame of reference changes. The work is challenging and invigorating and cutting-edge. You see that many of the people you’re working with are decent and likable. You tell yourself that decent people like these wouldn’t do anything indecent. Gradually your moral compass aligns with theirs…. You develop team spirit, and you don’t want to let your team down by shirking; you can’t be a nay-sayer on everything. You lose your sense of outrage, which is, after all, a feeling we experience when we see something abnormal. Once the abnormal becomes routine, outrage fades.
And next, from Professor Goldsmith:
Many … appointees think they can maintain their professional reputations and integrity once in office simply by refusing to cross any red lines…. [But t]his model is too simple. One reason it is too simple is that much of the time, and especially initially, the  issue[s] won’t be so clear cut…. In this situation, an [appointee] might end up [participating in] a deeply troubling [decision] even if it doesn’t cross a pre-imagined red line…. Another reason the model is too simple is that decisions happen incrementally in real time in ways that make it hard to see how trivial compromises for the sake of … loyalty [to the organization or its leaders] might commit one to a course of action that ends in a place that sacrifices reputation and integrity….
The stringent demand for Team loyalty, the internal change of reference, and the pressure to decide under time constraints and with factual uncertainty, can cause one to make small corner-cutting decisions that in the aggregate lead one to a place where one cannot help but jeopardize one’s reputation and personal integrity. The possibility that [an appointee’s] small compromise of principle may put him on a steep slippery slope to a much larger personal compromise is present in every [organization]. But the danger must be heightened in an [organization] led by a norm-defiant [leader]…. If so, then the crucial decision … may not be to avoid crossing red lines once in office. It may instead be the decision at the front end whether to sign up at all.
This all rings true to me. It’s certainly consistent with anecdotal accounts I’ve read and heard concerning systemic corruption in both government departments and private organizations. I’ll continue to work my way through the academic literature to see whether these observations are corroborated by more systematic research, but for now I thought I’d share these observations with GAB readers, and ask whether the above descriptions seem to accurately capture the dynamics in the corrupt organizations with which you all are most familiar.