A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post criticizing several trends that I have noticed in some (certainly not all) anticorruption scholarship. The inspiration and focus of my critique was a post by Professor Bo Rothstein (on the Tufts Corruption, Justice, and Legitimacy (CJL) Blog) which I thought exemplified some of the trends which I found problematic. Just a quick recap:
- I think that too much anticorruption scholarship is fixated on definitions, and has an exaggerated sense of the importance of definitional debates. In that regard, I criticized (indeed, I characterized as “ridiculous”) Professor Rothstein’s claims that the reason anticorruption reforms had not been more successful is because people are not defining “corruption” in the right way.
- I think that too much scholarship on corruption misunderstands and misuses social science concepts. Here, I took aim at Professor Rothstein’s assertion (which is hardly unique to him) that “principal-agent theory” can’t help us understand corruption, an argument that appears to be based on a fundamental misunderstanding and mischaracterization of what a principal-agent problem actually is.
- I also think that too much scholarship on corruption (and, frankly, too much scholarship generally) engages in sweeping and uncharitable dismissal of prior work and thought, often (or so it seems) because the scholar who wants to promote theory/hypothesis A feels the need to suggest that theory/hypothesis B has nothing whatsoever to offer. On this point, I focused on a less prominent but still important argument in Professor Rothstein’s post, namely his assertion that legal reform is irrelevant to the fight against corruption because all countries have “very good laws against corruption.” I took issue with this both because I think it’s wrong on the merits (all countries prohibit core forms of corruption like bribery, but there are huge and important variations in the nature of the specific relevant laws and legal institutions) and because I think such a quick rejection of the extensive and sophisticated line of research on the role of law in the fight against corruption was unhelpful, unnecessary, and counterproductive.
Because my critique focused on Professor Rothstein’s post, and because I had used strong critical language in advancing that critique, I offered Professor Rothstein an opportunity to write a response on this blog. He declined that offer, but he recently informed me that earlier this week he had published a response on the CJL blog. I am delighted that he chose to respond to my critique in writing. It will come as little surprise that I do not find his responses convincing in the slightest (for reasons I’m happy to elaborate if anybody so requests), but I greatly respect his willingness to take the time to write the response, so that our readers can follow the exchange and make up their own minds. Really, the main audience for this dispute consists of up-and-coming young scholars, who are making their own decisions about what kinds of work they want to do, what styles of scholarship and research topics will be most fruitful, and the like. I hope that these young scholars will find the exchange between Professor Rothstein and myself helpful in thinking through the kind of work they want to pursue.