How Corrupt Institutions Corrupt Decent People

One of the great challenges in combating corruption—particularly systemic corruption that permeates an entire organization or institution—is figuring out how and why ordinary, well-meaning people would get caught up in activities that are blatantly unethical and usually unlawful. Yes, there are some greedy sociopaths out there, but most people at least like to think of themselves as good people. And yes, sometimes the sociopaths wield so much power that they can coerce collaboration or obedience—but in most cases, systemic corruption occurs only because a large number of people who think of themselves as basically decent end up doing (or at least tolerating and implicitly enabling) grotesquely unethical conduct.

We’ve had a few posts on this topic before (see, for example, here and here), and there’s a substantial and ever-growing body of academic literature, in fields like psychology and organizational sociology, which investigates this question. I’m still working through that literature and perhaps in a future post I’ll have something to say about the research findings. But today, I just wanted to share some insights on the question that originated in commentaries on a different topic: posts by Professor David Luban and by my colleague Professor Jack Goldsmith on the question of whether people of decency and integrity should be willing to serve in the Trump Administration. (Professor Luban’s published immediately after the election, Professor Goldsmith’s published in the wake of Trump’s abrupt firing of FBI Director James Comey last May.) Professors Luban’s and Goldsmith’s pieces are not about corruption, but rather about broader issues related to the challenges of serving a President who might push a policy agenda that many prospective appointees, though politically conservative, find abhorrent. Nonetheless, in reading these two pieces, I was struck by how much their analysis could apply, with only slight modifications, to how well-meaning individuals who join a corrupt organization (whether in the public or private sector) can end up compromising their integrity.

Below I’ll simply quote the relevant passages, with only minor edits to make their observations applicable to corruption (in a public or private organization), rather than creeping authoritarianism or a radical policy agenda: Continue reading