If It Looks Corrupt, It Is Corrupt

In combatting corruption, how much conduct should be prohibited? This lively issue, implicated in the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent controversial decision in McCutcheon, is relevant to those drafting reform legislation worldwide. There are two different starting points for analysis. The first approach (call it the traditional view) aims to eliminate only “actual” corrupt behavior: the FCPA, for example, requires that to violate its anti-bribery provision, an act must be done “corruptly.” The second method bans acts that create the appearance of corruption: in the United States, for example, this standard governs the behavior of federal employees and federal judges (except the Justices of the Supreme Court).

My position is that anticorruption law should adopt appearance-based rules that prohibit behavior and relationships giving rise to a (reasonable) appearance of corruption. Under traditional thinking, these laws might be deemed too over-inclusive. However, this post highlights two crucial insights missing from the traditional calculus:

(1) The appearance of corruption creates a real harm to society, independent of the harm from “actual” corrupt behavior; and

(2) Recent empirical work shows that maintaining appearances is important: a decline in the public’s trust in government brings forth an array of nasty behavior from citizens.

Continue reading

Do Americans Care About Corruption?

We usually imagine that democratic accountability serves an important anticorruption function: since voters presumably do not approve of corruption, a benefit of democracy is the ability to give untrustworthy pols the boot. Yet in a recent op-ed in the Washington Post, Hilary Krieger provocatively claims that American voters don’t really care if a politician engages in corrupt acts, so long as “a political leader has otherwise furthered the public good.” In addition to this descriptive claim, she also makes the normative argument that Americans voters are right not to reflexively vote out politicians tainted by corruption.

Although both her descriptive and normative claims have some truth to them–elections are multi-faceted, and corruption is not the end-all-be-all issue–both the descriptive and normative arguments have serious flaws.

Continue reading

Transparency International’s Muddled Use of “Corruption,” and Why It Matters

What corruption means informs what and how anticorruption reformers reform.

Unfortunately, Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) dodges this important issue by averaging together the responses from polls employing competing definitions of “corruption.”  This is a problem because different types of corruption have different causes, have different effects, and require different types of remedies. Transparency International should disaggregate its index of perceived “corruption” into two distinct indices: one for perceptions of illegal corruption, and one for primarily legal (but distrust-generating) conduct, which could fairly be characterized as institutional corruption.  This change would make the CPI more precise, better educating the press, public, and policymakers who rely on it. Continue reading

Would the US Really Benefit from More Corruption? A Comment on Rauch

Jonathan Rauch’s recent Atlantic piece has a provocative title: “The Case for Corruption.”  Extending an argument about the unintended effects of international efforts to combat corruption to the domestic sphere, Rauch asserts that “in most political systems, the right amount of corruption is greater than zero. Leaders need to be able to reward followers and punish turncoats and free agents.”  According to Rauch, the U.S. political system used to give party leaders several tools to enforce discipline: pork-barrel spending, earmarks, campaign contributions, committee assignments, and endorsements.  The problem, he says, is that these mechanisms have become too weak–that we do not have enough of the “honest graft” famously celebrated by the Tammany Hall politician George Washington Plunkitt.

Rauch makes a valuable point that pork barrel spending (including earmarks), though unseemly, might serve a useful function in facilitating deals.  But does this mean that some amount of “corruption” can be good, as his title implies?  Maybe not–it depends on your definition of corruption, and Rauch is using a very expansive, and perhaps misleading one.  Rauch also urges us to change current regulations to empower party leaders, and is persuasive–to an extent.   Continue reading