This will be a super-short blog post that makes a super-short point. Here goes:
Let me start by stating the following proposition: Effective enforcement of anticorruption rules, including criminal law enforcement, against individual wrongdoers is necessary but not sufficient to combat systemic corruption.
Both parts of that proposition are important, and I believe correct:
- Punishing individual wrongdoers is necessary to combat systemic corruption because without individual accountability, it’s not possible to deter those who might be tempted to abuse their entrusted power for private gain, and the absence of individual accountability will likely perpetuate the belief that powerful elites are above the law, feeding the sense of hopelessness or resignation or cynicism that contributes to the vicious cycle that perpetuates systemic corruption.
- Punishing individual wrongdoers is not sufficient to combat systemic corruption because widespread corruption is generally the product of systems, institutions, and cultures that create the incentives and opportunities to behave corruptly, and without addressing these root causes of corruption, even the most aggressive anticorruption enforcement efforts will be ineffective.
I don’t think either of those claims should be controversial. But I’ve noticed that in debates over anticorruption efforts in various countries, people sometimes commit the logical fallacy—usually by implication rather than expressly—of treating the second claim (that criminal law enforcement is not sufficient to combat systemic corruption) as if it negated the first claim (that criminal law enforcement is necessary to combat systemic corruption). The argument is usually phrased something like this: “Country X is cracking down on corruption and aggressively enforcing its anticorruption laws and putting people in jail. But this is a mistake, because combating systemic corruption actually requires broad-based institutional reforms. The focus should therefore be on institutional reform, not on aggressive criminal law enforcement.”
I agree that criminal prosecutions alone can’t solve the corruption problem, and recent history is littered with examples of anticorruption “crackdowns” that failed to produce lasting change. And there’s certainly an important question as to where the emphasis should be—it’s entirely possible that in many countries there’s too much focus on criminal prosecutions and too little attention to other types of reform. But it’s not an either/or tradeoff, and it troubles me that the (correct) observation that criminal prosecutions are insufficient is so often deployed rhetorically to imply that aggressive criminal law enforcement is not necessary or appropriate. (I noted something like this argument in a previous exchange concerning Ukraine, and more recently encountered it in a discussion of the Car Wash Operation in Brazil, but I’ve heard basically the same line in conversations about many other countries.) Recognizing the importance of structural reform shouldn’t obscure the fact that effective enforcement of anticorruption laws, and the imposition of individual accountability, is also a vital part of the anticorruption agenda. After all, while there are plenty of punishment-focused anticorruption crackdowns that failed to produce systemic change, I can’t think of any successful efforts to get rampant corruption under control that didn’t involve a hefty dose of aggressive enforcement of the laws against corruption, including prosecution and punishment.