On the Political Subtext of Definition Debates, Part 2: Measurement or Moralism?

In my last post, I conjectured that a great deal of what would seem like a dry methodological question—How should we define and measure corruption?—is actually shot through with political-ideological considerations. The reason, I further conjectured, is that “corruption” is both (1) a descriptive sociological term, used to categorize a set of related behaviors, and (2) an evaluative moral term, used to characterize certain behaviors (or people or governments or institutions or countries) as “bad” or “blameworthy.” The fact that the same term has these different functions, coupled with the fact that the word “corruption” is particularly (though not uniquely) ambiguous and open-ended, means that attempts to come up with definitions and measurements that are appropriate for some purposes may seem to others wrongheaded, even offensive.

My illustration of this difficulty in the my last post concerned debates over whether “corruption” should be defined (say, by advocacy organizations or researchers) principally as “the abuse of public power for private gain,” or instead should be defined to include purely private sector corruption (“abuse of entrusted power for private gain”). My admittedly speculative conjecture was that many (not all) who argue for the latter position do so not so much because of (plausible) arguments for analytical equivalence, but rather due to an implicit—and in my view incorrect—belief that focusing on public sector corruption suggests a neoliberal/libertarian skepticism of activist government.

Here I want to suggest a similar sort of ideological subtext in debates over whether the definition of corruption (and the sorts of corruption that the leading indicators should seek to capture) ought to be limited to what we might think of as the “direct” or “first-order” dishonest acts by the responsible officials (such as taking bribes or embezzling funds), or whether measures of corruption should also incorporate the activities that facilitate corruption (such as providing safe havens for stolen assets), as well as the ways in which the rich and powerful seek to influence public policy through legal means (such as lobbying and campaign donations). This has come up more than a couple of times in the last few months at various conferences and roundtable discussions I’ve attended. The context is typically a criticism—often impassioned—of Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) and the associated graphics (such as the color-coded country map) that are used to illustrate the index results. The criticism usually runs as follows (and here I’m paraphrasing, but I think fairly and accurately):“If you look at the CPI map, most of the countries of the Global South, plus post-communist Central and Eastern Europe, are is in bright scary red and orange. The US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and most of Northwestern Europe are all in milder shades of yellow. This implies that corruption is a problem of the South, and further implies—perhaps unintentionally—the moral superiority of the North. But in fact these allegedly less-corrupt Northern/Western countries bear even greater responsibility for corruption. Their multinational companies are the ones paying the biggest bribes. They provide safe havens for stolen assets. Their bankers and lawyers and other professionals move and hide dirty money. Their governments often prop up corrupt regimes perceived as useful allies on other issues, such as counterterrorism. And, more generally, the legacy of imperialism is one of the main causes of dysfunctional institutions in the Global South. Moreover, conventional corruption perceptions measures focus on those forms of (typically illegal) means by which money distorts public policy in the South, such as bribery, while excluding all the technically legal but nevertheless ‘corrupt’ means by which wealthy interests influence policy in the North (campaign donations, lobbying, influence networks). Thus these ‘perceived corruption’ evaluations essentially let the rich Western countries off the (moral) hook, while implicitly condemning the countries of the Global South as morally deficient.”

I think that critique, at least when framed as a critique of how indexes like the CPI are constructed, is largely misguided, for reasons I’ll get to below. At the same time, I do think that it makes a several useful points:

  • First, despite the best efforts of those who produce and disseminate the CPI, and all the oft-repeated disclaimers and caveats, there is occasionally a tendency, at least in some quarters, to treat these rankings—especially when presented in color-coded graphical form—as if they represented allocations of responsibility or moral blameworthiness.
  • Second, and relatedly, these corruption perceptions ratings only capture certain parts of what are often chains or networks of illicit activity. Those networks don’t stop at national borders, even if that’s where the colors on the map change.
  • Third, there are undoubtedly many different ways that public policies can be distorted or manipulated by wealthy individuals or interest groups, only some of which are counted as “corruption” by conventional measures. Just because a country is pale yellow rather than dark red on the CPI map doesn’t mean that this country’s policymakers invariably act in the best interests of the citizenry.

I accept all that—but I still resist the idea, implicit in some though probably not all of critiques along the lines sketched above, that the definition of “corruption” needs to be expanded so that it includes all activities that contribute to (traditional) corruption elsewhere in the world, or all of the myriad ways that individuals or interest groups may exert “excessive” or “unfair” influence over political decisionmaking. The reason for my resistance is that, notwithstanding the ways in which indexes like the CPI are sometimes abused, to me their main value is capturing, however crudely and imperfectly, the perceived pervasiveness of a certain set of corrupt behaviors (mainly bribery and embezzlement). It’s useful for researchers and advocates to get a sense of how widespread these behaviors are in any given political jurisdiction—not for purposes of assigning blame, but for purposes of better understanding causes and consequences.

By way of analogy, suppose, as we want to better understand the factors that contribute to infectious disease mortality rates in different political jurisdictions. A public health NGO, or an international body like the World Health Organization, might gather this information and present it in the form of a color-coded map. The data, and perhaps also the visual aid, are useful for some purposes. We may well want to know, as researchers or advocates, how bad a particular problem is in different places. Now, at the same time, a critic could come along and make the following points:

  • The data and graphics indicate that infectious disease mortality rate is much higher in the Global South and the post-Socialist world than in wealthy Western countries. This implies that these poor and/or non-Western countries are “unhealthy.”
  • But the wealthy Western countries are in many ways responsible for the more widespread infectious disease burden in poorer countries. Western pharmaceutical companies arguably under-invest in medicines that would benefit poor people in tropical climates, while over-investing in treatments for much less serious conditions that tend to affect wealthy people in wealthy countries. And while some of the higher disease burden in the South may be due to factors like climate, much of this unhealthiness is attributable to a combination of a colonial history that contributed to persistently weak institutions, failure of wealthy countries to adequately support global public health initiatives, high public indebtedness caused by rapacious Western financial institutions, and the hollowing out of the state at the insistence of international lenders like the IMF that pushed unsuitable austerity programs.
  • Also, the focus on infectious disease makes the South look “sicker,” but if one looked at a broader range of diseases, ones more prevalent in Northern/Western countries, the difference would not look nearly so stark. Maybe Northern countries are just as “sick” as Southern countries, but the diseases are different.

Now, I’m not convinced that the latter two points are entirely true as an empirical matter, but for present purposes that’s neither here nor there. Let’s suppose those points are true. It wouldn’t change the fact that, for a variety of purposes, it’s really important to know the extent of infectious disease mortality in different countries, in order to better understand how to formulate remedial strategies and to test hypotheses about causes and consequences–research which, in turn, could lead to more effective public policy interventions. I think most people would find it strange to say that we shouldn’t gather and present data on infectious disease mortality rates across countries, out of an ideological concern that these statistics imply that the South is more “blameworthy” for its higher rates of infectious disease mortality. For similar reasons, I think the ideological criticisms I detect in some of the attacks on the CPI and similar indexes are largely misguided.

I can anticipate two possible responses to my proposed analogy, which I’d like to address before closing:

  • First, there’s the argument that disease rates are objective, while corruption is subjective (and, moreover, measured by perceptions). True enough, but that doesn’t really go to my main point here. Suppose we didn’t or couldn’t keep track, numerically, of infectious disease deaths, but we could still survey health workers, citizens, and others about their perceptions of the prevalence of infectious diseases in various countries. That would still be valuable data.
  • Second, there’s the argument that infectious disease prevalence does not imply moral failure the way that corruption prevalence does. Well, maybe—but not necessarily, and in a way the point I’m trying to make is that for many researchers and advocates, the attempt to measure (perceived) corruption is not at all about “blaming” a country or its citizens for its corruption problem, any more than collecting country-level data on disease incidence is about assigning moral blame for widespread sickness. The issue of responsibility is a separate matter, as is the question whether other (arguably worse) problems afflict wealthy Western countries.

I understand and respect the fact that others may have a different view, and I welcome further vigorous debate on these conceptual and methodological issues. Really all I wanted to do in this post, and the last one, was to say out loud what I think a lot of us often sense but don’t discuss: For many people, methodological questions regarding corruption measurement have an ideological/moral dimension. I would like to resist that impulse, but at the very least I think we should identify it and debate it openly.

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