Guest Post: Lessons from Athenians’ Efforts to Define Corruption

Gab readers have been treated to a lively and valuable debate in past weeks on precisely what we mean when we say that someone or some behavior is “corrupt.” Many readers have joined the discussion. Responding to my request for their views by offering comments and analyses of six real world cases where a court, ethics commission, or legislature has been asked to decide whether the conduct of a public official was corrupt.

I had promised to post “the right answers” to the six, or at least the answers the court, commission or legislature gave this week. I am putting it off to share the guest post below by classics scholar and American attorney Kellam Conover. Drawing on the dissertation that garnered him a PhD. in Classics from Princeton, he explains how citizens of ancient Athens decided when an official’s conduct was corrupt. What he takes from their method provides the only way I see for arriving at genuine right answers – not only to the six cases I presented but to the general issues of how to define corruption and how to measure our progress in overcoming it. Many thanks Kellam.

I have read with great interest the fascinating discussion that has unfolded recently among Bo Rothstein, Matthew Stephenson, Robert Barrington, Paul Heywood, and Michael Johnston.  The questions they raise about how to define corruption, how to link up theory with practice, and how to measure success are all ones I have grappled with since writing my dissertation on Bribery in Classical Athens

As a historian, I’ve spent far more time describing corruption than prescribing solutions.  But I hope a few observations from ancient Athens will be helpful to others.  First, in my view corruption defies definition because it is an inherently political claim that changes with different social and political contexts.  Second, and as a result, it may be fruitful to augment anti-corruption programs with institutions specifically designed for articulating, contesting, and legitimating evolving political norms.  Finally, I offer one potential metric of success:  i.e., whether patterns of corruption in a polity have grown less disruptive over time.

(1) Corruption is a political claim about actions:  I agree to a point with Stephenson and Barrington that using even an imperfect definition of corruption—such as “abuse of power for private gain”—can have some utility.  But using imprecise definitions also can obfuscate the politics at work in defining corruption and why different patterns of corruption emerge where they do.

In ancient Athens, for example, “bribery” was not a well-defined category of actions, but an inherently political claim about actions.  The Athenians had no word for a “bribe”—they always said “gift”—and what differentiated “gift” from “bribe” was whether a “bad” outcome resulted.  Perhaps as a result, Athenian officials were allowed to receive “gifts” for performing their duties, so long as they did not give back to the city a “bad” outcome (however defined). 

I do not think this made bribery a wholly “empty signifier,” as Rothstein says.  Rather, the gifts or payments received by Athenian officials arose from the specific social relations the officials had leveraged to achieve political outcomes—e.g., in military operations, on embassies, or even in providing “public” services.  Bribery was therefore a specific frame for identifying and contesting what types of social relationships should be leveraged in politics, and whether an official had, in turn, honored their “friendship” with the city.  In short, the Athenians used bribery as a touchstone for thinking through what democratic politics should look like.

The Athenians were not alone in treating corruption as an inherently political claim.  But the Athenian case does helpfully highlight that the normative value of a “bribe” arises from specific legal and political norms and specific patterns in how social relations are leveraged in politics.  With different legal or political cultures or different social configurations, we should expect different patterns or, to borrow Johnston’s typology, different “syndromes” of corruption. 

(2) Anti-corruption reforms are a constitutive part of politics:  Barrington is exactly right to call for thick accounts of why certain reforms have succeeded in some places, but not in others.  In my view, the ancient Athenians did not succeed at reducing bribery rates, but they were fairly good at democratization—and two aspects of their anti-bribery reforms may help explain why.

First, bribery trials at Athens were frequent (several per year), highly public affairs that were initiated by any Athenian who wanted and the trial often involved hundreds or even thousands of Athenian jurors.  These trials seem to have catalyzed the development of a range of new political technologies and even new democratic norms.  Indeed, often what was on trial was the relevant norm violated by bribery—e.g., what officials owed the community, how to govern effectively, or which social relations a general or ambassador, say, could leverage to achieve political ends. 

Second, their anti-bribery reforms focused on “matching” a particular type of bribery—e.g., bribery involving juries, elections, generals, Councilors, or public speakers—with enforcement by a specific authoritative body (jury, council, Assembly, etc.) well-suited to decide and legitimate whether a particular outcome was “bad.”  As a result, innovations in how to address bribery led to further democratic innovations including the creation of public accountability, mandatory auditing of officials, and broader access to political institutions. 

The Athenians’ insight, as I see it, was to recognize that who decides what is corrupt, how that decision is made, and what is deemed corrupt are the stuff of politics.  They treated anti-bribery reforms as an essential, constitutive part of democratic politics, and they designed their anti-bribery institutions to engage the appropriate body to articulate, contest, and legitimate what is deemed “corrupt.”  To my mind, those norm-generation and -legitimation processes only strengthened the democracy and made Athenian anti-bribery reforms a “success.”

(3) One metric of success is how corruption evolves:  A brief word on measuring success.  Like Johnston (and Plato), I don’t think corruption can ever fully be eliminated:  As polities evolve, new political technologies and norms arise, and with those come new forms of corruption.  But we could potentially gauge the direction a polity is headed by measuring whether patterns of corruption have become less disruptive over time.  That is, have they resulted in less violence or more?  Fewer and less serious deprivations of public services, or more and more serious ones?  Fewer violations of rights, or more?  (etc.)  

Ancient Athens makes me optimistic for future anti-corruption efforts.  As the long arc of Athens’ democratization reminds me, “success” in these campaigns will most likely be measured not in years, but across decades or even centuries.  So the jury may yet be out on anti-corruption programs. But given the progress so far and the vigorous debate here, the future seems bright. 

2 thoughts on “Guest Post: Lessons from Athenians’ Efforts to Define Corruption

  1. Thank you so much for this post. I always enjoy reading historical pieces, especially in discussing Ancient Athens and what lessons we can derive from that period. I really enjoyed reading through your idea that corruption changes with different social and political contexts and how in Athens, specifically, the normative value of a “bribe” arose from specific legal and political norms and patterns. I think this holds in the United States today and can be seen in prosecutorial discretion, for example. The discretion prosecutors have connects to their own ( or society’s view ) as to whether the bribe was attached to, or led to, a “bad” or even “unjust” outcome.

  2. Pingback: Episode 278 – the Happiest Profession edition | The Compliance Podcast Network

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