Defining Corruption: What Do Readers Say?

Recent posts have treated readers to a discussion of what corruption means.  Professor Rothstein suggested coming at it from its opposite and offered “impartiality” so corruption would mean the absence of impartiality or bias. [Note: I had flubbed Prof. Rothstein’s view in the original text as per his comment below.] Professor Johnson argued that at its core corruption is about an imbalance of power and suggested tying the definition to notions of “justice.” Transparency International’s “abuse of entrusted power for private gain” was also examined.

I think it time for GAB readers to be heard. Rather than asking which one of these definitions they prefer, or whether they have another candidate, however, I thought it more interesting to see how a definition of corruption helps them judge actual conduct in the real world. 

Below are six cases where at least some have alleged corruption was afoot. What say, GAB readers? Do any of the cases described below involve corruption as you define it?

A yea or nay on each in a comment to this post will suffice. Extra credit for explaining how one of the definitions proffered helped you decide. Lifetime subscription to GAB at the current rate to the best entry or entries. How each played out in court and in the court of public opinion will be revealed in a future post.

Case 1. To defeat a motion of no confidence, Vanuatu’s Unity of Change government offered two MPs parliamentary appointments in return for withdrawing their support for the motion.  Another MP was offered the position of Minister of Health, and a fourth Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Fisheries. All four accepted the offers, and the government defeated the motion. Bribery?

Case 2. Upon his election as President, Barack Obama resigned his seat in the U.S. Senate.  Under Illinois law, the governor appoints someone who serves until the next election. Governor Rod Blagojevich offered to name a close friend of Obama’s to the seat if Obama would make him a Cabinet Secretary. Obama refused. Attempted bribery?

Case 3. A candidate for mayor of Oakland, California, pledged to revitalize depressed areas of the city if elected. After winning the election, critics argued the now Oakland mayor must recuse himself from any involvement in redeveloping these areas as he lived in one of them and his decisions would affect the value of his property.  Conflict of interest?

Case 4. Australia’s Liberal Party controlled the New South Wales Legislative Assembly thanks to the support of four independent MPs. Tony Metherall, a Liberal Party Minister, resigned his position in the Cabinet and his party membership after being accused of tax offenses but remained in parliament as an independent. After behind the scenes negotiation with the government, he resigned from parliament. On the same day he was appointed to a well-paid position in the New South Wales public service. Bribery?

Case 5.  Shortly after a Democrat was elected governor of Kentucky, James Gray, a newly installed political appointee, told the agent then writing the state’s workers compensation policy that the agent could continue as the state’s agent provided he shared his commission with other insurance agencies, in one of which Gray was part-owner. Commission rates were fixed so Kentucky was not out money from the sharing arrangement. Kickback?

Case 6. Canadian Prime Minister owned part of a golf course next to a hotel in his riding or electoral district.  He pressured the national development bank to extend a loan to the hotel next door so that it could expand. Conflict of interest?

15 thoughts on “Defining Corruption: What Do Readers Say?

  1. This is neither correct nor serious. I have never defined corruption as imparitialty. I have tried to define what should be understood as the opposite to corruption in the execise of public power, that is, what should count as qualiity og goverment. This is not a small difference., or would you define deception as honesty.

    • I think it’s quite obvious in context that Rick meant that you define corruption as the _absence_ of impartiality (or, if you prefer, a transgression of the norm of impartiality), much as one might well define deception as the absence of honesty (or transgression of the norm of honesty). I doubt any readers misunderstood Rick’s characterization.

  2. Very interesting initiative Prof Messick. It goes to the heart of the discussion. It is not news that there are many shades to corruption. And these cases you pointed out confirm that. i. e samples 1 and 2 described as bribery ( i would in principle name them corruption but not a bribery itself. Shouldn’t someone give something of value ( i would expect monetary value) for an act to be considered bribery?
    Case 3- shortly not a CoI per se as by revitalising depressed areas the whole neighbourhood profits.

  3. 1) No, this is simply politics.
    2) This is corruption. By the way, I think the former Governor’s first name is “Rod”.
    3) A minor conflict of interest that should be disclosed, but would not normally require recusal. Recusal would be required for anything specifically touching the mayor’s property value, as opposed to property values in general.
    4) Yes to bribery in an economic sense; don’t know under the relevant Australian law.
    5) Yes to kickback.
    6) At the least the PM should have disclosed the potential conflict, and probably recused, but helping businesses and constituents is part of most political job descriptions. It should be done in a more open and transparent way than was evidently the case here.

  4. Thanks to our first two responders, and apologies to Prof. Rothstein for bungling his definition. Have corrected it. I also corrected the first name of the Illinois governor who in the vernacular of Illinois politics “shopped” Obama’s Senate seat.

    Looks like competition for a lifetime subscription to GAB at the current rate is going to be stiff.☺

  5. UNCAC contains no definition of corruption; it contains categories of corruption. This is said to be deliberately designed to keep it open.
    We should not be bothered by not having a precise definition of corruption. Corruption just smells. A blindfolded person can easily differentiate whether he is inside a kitchen or a toilet. Similarly, a pornography and a nude art can easily be differentiated just by looking at the picture.
    One reason why corruption is difficult to define is: There are black corruption (where there is public unanimity in causes and consequences of corruption); grey corruption (there is unanimity either with the causes or the consequences; and white corruption (no unanimity in causes and consequences, these are mostly in the areas of politics or political corruptions).

  6. No 1 is politics and it doesn’t make sense to call it corruption according to either definition.
    No 3 is a stretch if he is asked to recuse himself completely from the whole thing when it benefits a lot of people. He should recuse himself from projects that specifically involve his property and neighbourhood, but not from the entire effort.

    The other cases are problematic and look like corruption based on both definitions. In fact, not sure if the two definitions are really that different in practical terms. Aren’t absense of impartiality or bias and absence of justice very closely related concepts? It would be interesting if any of the respondents see one of the given examples to qualify as corruption according to one definition but not the other. Or if Profs Rothstein and Johnston can clarify the practical differences between the two definitions with some other specific examples that would clarify how they are different in practical terms. Until then, it’s not clear we should be arguing about definitions. So in that sense, this blog post seems like a really good exercise to explore how and whether the definitions are meaningfully different.

  7. 1, 2, 3 – Not corrupt.
    4, 5, 6 – Corruption.

    I think 1 and 2 describe political manoeuvring (and differ from 4 in that 4 involves avoiding punishment for literal illegal actions) – bad and should be discouraged but not imo corruption. 3 feels pernickety – a similar argument could be made about a politician who improves the health system while suffering from a chronic condition.

  8. 1 and 2 – not corrupt. I wouldn’t regard the exchange of political favors (votes / political support or influence) as corrupt, unless it implicates some economic trade-off (govenment contracts, tax breaks, etc). I suppose you may expect impartiality from a bureaucrat, but it would be unrealistic to hold political power games to the same standard.

    3 – There would only be a conflict of interest if there were a project specifically benefiting the mayor’s property.

    4 – The toughest case, IMHO. I’d go with “not corrupt”, as long as: 1) the resignation & appointment have no influence on the tax offence prosecution and 2) the job’s political relevance justifies a high salary. Under these circumstances, I’d file this one under “political power games”, along with 1 and 2.

    5 and 6 – Corrupt under whichever definition or standard you choose.

  9. Early returns from readers’ poll.

    Case 1, Vanuatu majority government provides MPs positions in return for vote against no confidence measure. C:1 // NC: 4

    Case 2, U.S. Senate seat in return for appointment to cabinet. C:3 // NC:2

    Case 3, Oakland Mayor oversees redevelopment funds to neighborhoods that could include his own. NC: 2

    Case 4, Independent New South Wales MP resigns seat in return for job in public service. C:3 // NC: 1

    Case 5, Appointee in newly elected Kentucky government asks for share of fixed commission government pays for insurance. C: 3

    Case 6, Canadian PM lobbies national development bank to loan to hotel abutting golf course he has part interest in. C: 2

    Note: Not all readers answered all questions and some answers that were heavily qualified are not included. Final count will be subject to recount and audit.

  10. I think the behavior in all the cases is corrupt, because in all of them private gain was the dominant driver instead of the public interest that the protagonists were supposed to defend. Shame on all those people (if Mr. Messick didn’t make them up).

    That said, at least cases 1-4 are also ‘just politics’ as other responders said. Which makes the collection of examples so interesting and shows that what is accepted of politicians is not accepted, and indeed sanctioned as a criminal offence, of public officials.

  11. 1).Yes, this was abuse of entrusted power by the government, they are only interested in staying in power and not in going back to the people for another mandate. This means they are a corrupt government, going by the methods they are using to stay in power. At the same time, there is injustice due to the balance of power as they have used their power to bribe the MPs so that they can stay in power and not be voted out.

    2).Yes, attempted bribery. This governor wanted to use power as a trade off to gain something as he gives something. He was clearly misusing his entrusted power, as the people who elected him do not expect him to promote his own interests, at their cost. Luckily there was a power imbalance as Obama had the capacity and integrity to refuse the offer.

    3). No, I do not see this as conflict of interest, I see it as one of the ways political leaders can get involved in implementing solutions to problems they promised to solve during campaigns. In fact, if he did not get involved, he would be accused of failing to get this done, yet it was one of his campaign promises. However, when it comes to bidding for the tenders it would be ethical that he does not get involved as a contractor or in making decisions around who does the job. But as a policy of the city, he ought to be right at the forefront of its implementation.

    4).Yes, very sure this was bribery where individuals who are suspected of tax offenses are not prosecuted but given soft landings. There is power imbalance here as this individual was very powerful so the fallout could have been severe and the party is more interested in self preservation than in doing the right thing. This is abuse of entrusted power by the people who elected the government in place.

    5).Yes, this is definitely a kickback. The imbalance of power between Gray and the agent is very clear and Gray is clearly abusing his entrusted power, as a political appointee, to milk Kentucky dry.

    6).Yes, this was conflict of interest as he had an interest in the value of his golf course and all this was calculated to benefit himself and not the hotel. There is a clear imbalance of power and injustice here and the abuse of entrusted power as people who elected him do not expect him to do this to pursue his own interests.

    I think the field has theoretical gaps due to the lack of a theory of corruption, with a preponderance of conceptual disagreements and definitional debates that tend to yield even more contradicting conceptualizations of corruption. Current theoretical explorations have often taken the form of applying theories to corruption rather than an engagement in theorizing corruption itself. Many scholars have used established theoretical approaches and established theories to explore corruption, with principal-agent theories dominating the literature but these approaches have proved inadequate in explaining corruption fully, and there is a need to examine novel theories that can help us better understand this wicked problem.

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