Guest Post: Succeeding or Failing… at What?

Today’s guest post is from Michael Johnston, Professor of Political Science Emeritus at Colgate University:

A bracing and long overdue debate has surfaced recently on this and other blogs, focusing primarily upon the issue of whether anticorruption efforts have failed but also raising important questions about definitions, theory, analytical methods and—not least—the norms of scholarly discourse. Entries by Bo Rothstein, Matthew Stephenson, Robert Barrington, and Paul Heywood offer searching critiques and a number of cautionary tales that I will certainly take to heart.

The discussions raise many more questions than I can analyze in this short discussion, but as for the issue that launched the exchange—whether many or most anticorruption efforts have failed—my answer is to raise another question: How would we know? To that I add a critical follow-up: If we were to see significant success, what might it look like? The first question, I suggest, has no single clear-cut answer, and never will. As for the second: In my view success would not revolve around levels of corruption, but about the prevalence of justice.

These questions are certainly linked to the other issues under debate, such as definitions, theory, measurement, and the ways we conduct our scholarly enterprise. But they ask us to look further, and to ask: What do we seek, and why are we doing all of this?

The impossibility of an overall verdict on success reflects many problems, most of them familiar. After all, corruption has no settled definition: I have problems with the “entrusted power” approach because the power in question has so often been inherited, stolen, seized at gunpoint, bought, sold, and rented out—in other words, not “entrusted” by anyone. We lack valid and reliable measures; corruption is embedded in complex, multi-level webs of causality that we should not oversimplify; and the field is marked by an academicians-vs-practitioners division that, while as Professor Heywood points out, is not as sharp as is sometimes suggested, still means we are sometimes talking past each other.

At an even more basic level, “corruption” is no one single entity or problem. I think I see four qualitatively different syndromes out in the world. While other and better schemes may well refute mine, it is difficult to argue that lobbying abuses, the activities of mafia-backed oligarchs, and the scheming of Chinese “princelings”—or, corruption by a big Danish bank, and that in (for example) Nigeria—are just variations on a single underlying dimension. When we speak of corruption in different places and eras we often are discussing quite different things. Similarly, what do we mean by anticorruption “success”? Zero corruption is not on the cards, and “zero tolerance” is an empty slogan. Further, we can imagine that replacing high-level impunity with competitive electoral politics, for example, might check some sorts of corruption but make way for other corrupting uses of political money. Other “successes” have had unanticipated consequences: Transparency regarding political contributions in the United States has arguably created government-compiled “target lists” for both candidates and contributors, while adding to some of the advantages incumbents already have over challengers. James D’Angelo has argued that such transparency also makes it easier for contributors to maintain discipline over recipients, ensuring that donors get political value for their money.

Overall, I stand by my verdict that our efforts have generally been “unimpressive, or counterproductive,” not in order to hide behind weasel words but to emphasize that the consequences of a given control may be positive, negative, and negligible, depending upon the circumstances—and can depend upon who is doing the evaluating. The effects of new automated procurement processes, for example, might simultaneously be positive for some and negative for others, even if we are looking only at honest bidders.

The common element underlying all of these variations, contrasts and contingencies is the imbalance of power that enables the few—officials, their cronies, middlemen, to name a few—to exploit the many. Hence my focus on justice as an overriding goal and justification of anticorruption efforts, and as a broad criterion for assessing their impact. “Justice” has as many subjective meanings and circumstantial variations as “corruption,” and its pursuit involves long timelines and complex causality. But rather than asking ourselves whether we are reducing the incidence of corrupt practices that lie beyond our abilities of measurement, we can observe whether government is performing basic functions and delivering services in fair and effective ways. Are more voices being heard in a safe and valued political space? Can people who see themselves as the victims of corruption defend themselves by political means? Deepening justice will not necessarily manifest itself in the form of broad social harmony. Indeed, it will often be marked by contention and controversy. But it is worth remembering that it is out of such contention—the conviction, often sustained by self-interest rather than by anything like civic virtue, that those in power should not be able to deny my freedom, seize my property, or exclude me from decisions affecting my life—that the basic notion of corruption itself originates, and that the energy needed to redress basic political imbalances is created and sustained.

None of this is to suggest that we should give up on checking specific corrupt practices. We can and should, however, rethink the reasons why we do so and the ways we assess any effects we might have. Neither am I trying, under the banner of “justice,” to smuggle Western-style liberal democracy back into the debate as a one-size-fits-all goal for reform. Liberal democracies and economies have corruption problems of their own—consider the emerging debate over “institutional corruption”—and within moral and ethical limits “justice” can be understood in rather different ways. It may be said that a justice-based perspective leaves us assessing impacts and progress by a range of airy and unattainable ideals, rather than by solid evidence. But if quantification is seen as essential, there are numerous justice-related indices of varying types, and techniques for measuring the ways governments do or do not deliver for their citizens. Finally, with injustice as with corruption we know it when we see it. In the societies we care about, people often can tell us how they are treated by governments and officials, and what they would see as fair and just.

The perspective proposed here, perhaps ironically, may shift our attention to positive aspects of the picture. While some norms are undoubtedly crumbling, other elite activities and privileges that were once standard operating procedure are now controversial and widely challenged. An anticorruption movement that did not exist thirty-five years ago, during a time when those of us working on the issue were seen as unserious people pursuing trivial questions, is a major presence on the global stage. Mark Pyman, with whom I have enjoyed several exchanges about global corruption trends (his views are more positive than mine), has launched the Curbing Corruption website, showing us what can be learned and done with an emphasis on sectors, not just whole countries.

Controlling corruption, in itself, will not guarantee justice. But I look forward to a day when anticorruption analysts and organizations, by backing technocratic perspectives with a sound understanding of the social realities of the problem, can show that we are making progress against the political injustices that make corruption worth worrying about to begin with.

2 thoughts on “Guest Post: Succeeding or Failing… at What?

  1. “After all, corruption has no settled definition: I have problems with the “entrusted power” approach because the power in question has so often been inherited, stolen, seized at gunpoint, bought, sold, and rented out—in other words, not “entrusted” by anyone.”
    If we regard the people as the principal, state powers and discretion are delegated to agents who, whether or not they like or admit it and however they came to be in office, owe fiduciary duties to the people. Abuse of authority, in the exercise of their powers or discretion, is a breach of trust and confidence by the agents. If done for personal advantage, breach of a fiduciary duty is an act of corruption. The unjust enrichment of a corrupt agent stands to be reversed by deprivation and restitution to the principal, the people. A measure of success is the number of successful cases for recovery of the principal’s property or forfeiture to the principal of the value of the unjust enrichment of the agent, by whatever (probably criminal) means. One need not invoke criminal law, to take off the agent, who has failed the fiduciary duty, the profit generated by the breach (theft, fraud, bribe taking, patronage or clientelism). This is true for common law jurisdictions and can be in civil law jurisdictions.
    It must be this simple because it’s common sense and just how people (not lawyers or academics) see it.

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