How Corrupt Institutions Corrupt Decent People

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.

3 thoughts on “How Corrupt Institutions Corrupt Decent People

  1. Hi, I spent a lot of time looking into this during my PhD studies, there’s a huge relevant literature in criminology and social psychology. A really intriguing hypothesis is that people in collectivist societies (see World Values Survey) find it harder to resist social pressure and social norms, so the individual moral compass may be less salient in those contexts, for better or for worse.

    One thing to always keep in mind in poor countries is that when the choice is between dinner for my kids and adherence to abstract norms for the benefit of some abstract system, the moral case isn’t exactly clear-cut. Corruption has saved, as well as destroyed, many lives.

    An interesting alternative approach would be to look into how corrupt individuals set out to systematically corrupt clean institutions. Plenty of historical examples I assume, but I haven’t looked into it myself.

  2. Another two thoughts, taken from my experience with NGOs:

    1. If employees see that their institution isn’t actually achieving anything useful for anyone, the moral barriers to helping themselves are lowered. Personally, I’ve seen a lot of NGO projects that were so crap that the developmental impact would have been greater if staff had just stolen all the money and spent it on their families and friends.

    2. Low-level staff take their cues from the top. If I run an anti-poverty charity and live in a villa, I may not see that as being corrupt, but my staff members who live in shacks probably do – even though it’s perfectly legal and they may be too polite/scared to say that. So it’s not only illegal actions that set bad examples.

  3. Where I come from, it’s difficult to find institutions (both local & multinational) where a person’s integrity would not be tested at one point. For this reason, the choice really is whether to refrain from employment or enter a compromised system. However, the harshness of this dilemma is mitigated by the fact that even among these bodies, there are some more well known for corruption. I would avoid the most corrupt until I have attained a level of prestige where I can call some shots. Still, I wouldn’t be too fast to advocate for totally shunning institutions especially if they maintain their legitimate aim and there are no equivalent alternatives. Changing institutions as an outsider is an uphill task. If a person with the aptitude & experience for it were to keep away from politics due to the lack of ethics in its conduct, they may save their reputation but lose the chance to make a very bad system better, even a little. In such situations, perhaps the best option would be to buffer themselves by having ethical points of reference outside the institution and taking a total break from time to time to detox from the numbing effects of the compromised environment.

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