On the Political Subtext of Definition Debates, Part 2: Measurement or Moralism?

In my last post, I conjectured that a great deal of what would seem like a dry methodological question—How should we define and measure corruption?—is actually shot through with political-ideological considerations. The reason, I further conjectured, is that “corruption” is both (1) a descriptive sociological term, used to categorize a set of related behaviors, and (2) an evaluative moral term, used to characterize certain behaviors (or people or governments or institutions or countries) as “bad” or “blameworthy.” The fact that the same term has these different functions, coupled with the fact that the word “corruption” is particularly (though not uniquely) ambiguous and open-ended, means that attempts to come up with definitions and measurements that are appropriate for some purposes may seem to others wrongheaded, even offensive.

My illustration of this difficulty in the my last post concerned debates over whether “corruption” should be defined (say, by advocacy organizations or researchers) principally as “the abuse of public power for private gain,” or instead should be defined to include purely private sector corruption (“abuse of entrusted power for private gain”). My admittedly speculative conjecture was that many (not all) who argue for the latter position do so not so much because of (plausible) arguments for analytical equivalence, but rather due to an implicit—and in my view incorrect—belief that focusing on public sector corruption suggests a neoliberal/libertarian skepticism of activist government.

Here I want to suggest a similar sort of ideological subtext in debates over whether the definition of corruption (and the sorts of corruption that the leading indicators should seek to capture) ought to be limited to what we might think of as the “direct” or “first-order” dishonest acts by the responsible officials (such as taking bribes or embezzling funds), or whether measures of corruption should also incorporate the activities that facilitate corruption (such as providing safe havens for stolen assets), as well as the ways in which the rich and powerful seek to influence public policy through legal means (such as lobbying and campaign donations). This has come up more than a couple of times in the last few months at various conferences and roundtable discussions I’ve attended. The context is typically a criticism—often impassioned—of Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) and the associated graphics (such as the color-coded country map) that are used to illustrate the index results. The criticism usually runs as follows (and here I’m paraphrasing, but I think fairly and accurately): Continue reading

On the Political Subtext of Definition Debates, Part 1: Public vs. Private Sector Corruption

Since I started working in the anticorruption field a few years back, I’ve noticed that a substantial amount of the discussion in this field—at conferences, in journals, on blogs like this one, etc.—is given over to debates about definition and measurement. This is something I’ve discussed, and complained about, before (see here, here, and here)—though I concede that every time I bring this up, I’m contributing to the very problem I’m complaining about.

Now, one of the reasons there’s so much debate about definition and measurement in this field is because corruption is, relative to other concepts, particularly difficult to define and measure. Another reason—in my mind the main one—is that while “corruption” is sometimes used as a purely descriptive term (that is, to describe certain conduct, which we can try to measure empirically), it is also an evaluative/normative term—one that connotes “bad” behavior of a certain sort. So any attempt to define corruption (for purposes of positive analysis or empirical research) will often, perhaps inevitably, suggest a normative position on the sorts of conduct, people, or institutions that ought to be condemned.

That’s not an original point, nor even a terribly interesting one. But the more of these “what is corruption” conversations I’ve been a part of, the more I get the sense that there’s a more specific political/ideological subtext to some of the arguments about how corruption should be defined. Nobody ever articulates these ideas in so many words, and so I may be way off base, but I’m going to offer up some conjectures, in this post and in the next one, about what I sense is the ideological subtext of some of these definitional debates.

Here I’ll focus on a fairly narrow issue: Should those organizations that focus on (and sometimes try to measure) “corruption” emphasize forms of corruption that involve the public sector (government, or entities with a sufficiently close connection with government to be considered essentially public instrumentalities), or should the “anticorruption agenda”—as well as the definition and measurement of corruption—also include purely private sector corruption? Continue reading

Corruption Discussion on “The Scholars’ Circle”

Last summer UCLA Professor Miriam Golden and I did a radio interview on political corruption for a program called The Scholars’ Circle, hosted by Maria Armoudian. I just learned that a recording of the program is available online, and I thought it might be of interest to some readers of this blog. The recording can be found here; the discussion about corruption begins at 17:16.

The relatively brief but wide-ranging discussion, skillfully moderated by Ms. Armoudian, touches on five major issues (issues that we’ve also covered on this blog):

  • How should we define corruption, and how can we try to measure it? (at 18:11-26:31 on the recording)
  • Possible factors that might contribute to the level of corruption, including economic development, governance systems (democracy v. autocracy), social norms, and culture (26:32-32:41)
  • Whether and how countries can make the transition from a state of endemic corruption to a state of manageable/limited corruption—as well as the risk of backsliding (32:52-47:32)
  • What will the impact of the Trump Administration be on corruption, and on norms of integrity and the rule of law, in the United States? (47:42-52:02)
  • What are some of the main remedies that can help make a system less corrupt? (52:03-56:34)

There’s obviously a limit to how deep one can go in a format like this, and the program is geared toward a non-specialist audience, but I hope some readers find the conversation useful in stimulating more thinking on the topics we covered. Thanks for listening!

Conceptualizing Bank Robbery: A Pedantic Parable for Corruption Scholars

Some years ago, an ambitious and idealistic young social scientist decided that she would put her newly-acquired research skills to good use by trying to better understand and combat some important social problem. She settled on bank robbery. Why? Well, partly her personal interest, partly her background, and partly coincidence: She had a friend whose hometown had been hit by a rash of bank robberies, and she had been reading newspaper articles about a high-profile bank robbery, and it just seemed like a good thing to work on.

She went to see a senior scholar in the field, a former editor of the Journal of Bank Robbery and chair of the International Association of Bank Robbery Studies. They had the following exchange: Continue reading

Guest Post: The Metaphysics of “Corruption” (or, The Fundamental Challenge to Comparative Corruption Measurement)

GAB is pleased to welcome back Jacob Eisler, Lecturer at Cambridge University, who contributes the following guest post:

A couple months back, Matthew Stephenson and Michael Johnston engaged in a lively debate on the question of if aggregate-level data of corruption is useful, focusing on the appropriate level of methodological skepticism that should be directed towards large-scale efforts to quantify corruption (see here, here, here, and here). While this debate touched on a number of fascinating questions regarding how to best treat data regarding corruption, it has drifted away from why Michael had a concern with overly aggressive quantification in the first place: Actually addressing corruption requires a “standard of goodness,” and the difficulty in coming up with such a standard explains why the social sciences have faced a “longstanding inability to come to a working consensus over how to define corruption.” In other words, when we talk about corruption, we are inevitably talking about something bad that suggests the vitiation or distortion of something good. It is difficult to conceptualize corruption except as a distortion of a non-objectionable political process—that is, political practice undertaken with integrity. This need not mean that there must be some shared first-order property of good governance; but it does suggest that there is a shared property to distorted or corrupted governance that must derive from some shared property of all politics.

If this idea of a “shared feature” is taken seriously, it would suggest those who argue for the value of comparative corruption metrics are making a very strong claim: that if you are comparing corruption within a country, or across countries, all the relevant polities and types of practice must have some shared feature, deviation from which counts as corruption. This shared feature in turn would be an aspect of governance. It could be any number of constants in human society – a constant feature of morality in governance, or tendencies of human anthropology. But in any case, this is a very distinctive and powerful claim, and one that requires strong assumptions or assertions regarding the nature of governance. To weave this back to the original dispute, our willingness to rely on quantitative metrics should depend on our level of commitment to our faith in this constant feature of politics that makes corruption a transferable, or, more aggressively put, “universal” thing. Our use of these homogenizing empirical metrics implies that we are committed to the robustness of the constant feature. Yet it doesn’t seem like this conceptual work has been done. Continue reading

ສໍ້ລາດບັງຫຼວງ’: The Laotian Approach

The American Supreme Court’s recent decision that confusion over what constitutes corruption entitles former Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell to a new trial again illustrates how critical it is that “corruption” be precisely defined.  As Matthew explained yesterday, the Court in McDonnell ruled that the definition the jury was given to decide whether the former governor had broken the law was too broad.  The justices feared that were such a definition allowed to stand, public servants would shy away from doing their duties for fear they could be accused of “corruption.”  While Matthew argues that in McDonnell this fear was misplaced, there are instances where it is not.  Take Indonesia.  Bureaucrats there are refusing to spend billions of dollars on legally approved projects ranging from schools and hospitals to garbage trucks and parking meters because they fear it would open them to investigation for the vaguely defined corruption crimes as “abuse of office.”

As I have argued on this blog, the problem begins with the term “corruption.”  As passed down from Latin to Old French and into English, the word carries the idea of something that has spoiled or become impure.  Milk left in the heat too long sours or is “corrupted.” But while there is no mistaking when milk has gone sour, the endless debates over whether such (lawful) practices as private donations to political candidates are “corrupt” shows that when applied to politics and government, “corruption” is in the eye of the beholder.

But not all languages derive their expression for “corruption” from Latin, and thus not all languages are saddled with the subjective meaning the Latin imparts to the modern-day term.  Take ສໍ້ລາດບັງຫຼວງ – the Laotian term for corruption. Continue reading

Guest Post: Fixing the Federal Definition of Bribery–From “Intent to Influence” to “Illegal Contract”

Albert W. Alschuler, the Julius Kreeger Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago Law School, contributes the following guest post:

In the United States, the principal federal criminal statute prohibiting the bribery of federal officials, 18 U.S.C. § 201(b), forbids “corruptly” offering or giving anything of value to an official “with the intent to influence any official act.” Yet, as I argue in a recent article, defining bribery primarily in terms of the payer’s “intent to influence” is overbroad. The phrase “intent to influence” not only seems on its face to reach common and widely accepted practices; it also invites speculation about motives and may produce prosecutions and convictions based on cynicism.

There’s an alternative: The American Law Institute’s 1962 Model Penal Code defines bribery as offering, giving, soliciting or accepting any pecuniary benefit as “consideration” for an official act. As a Texas court said of a state statute modeled on this provision, the Code “requir[es] a bilateral arrangement—in effect an illegal contract to exchange a benefit as consideration for the performance of an official function.” More than two-thirds of the states now embrace an “illegal contract” definition of bribery; the federal government and the remaining states should follow suit. Continue reading

Guest Post: The British Academy/DFID Anti-Corruption Evidence Programme

Paul M. Heywood, the Sir Francis Hill Professor of European Politics at the University of Nottingman, contributes the following guest post:

In a recent post, Matthew recommended a speech by Robert Barrington, Executive Director of Transparency International UK, on the relationship between academics and advocates in the fight against corruption. I was very pleased to read the post, as Robert had given the speech at my invitation during the inaugural meeting of research projects funded under an exciting new initiative being jointly run by the British Academy and the Department for International Development (DFID). The Anti-Corruption Evidence (ACE) Programme, which I serve in the capacity of Academic Leader, is designed explicitly to address the interface between researchers and practitioners, with a fundamental focus on what actually works when it comes to fighting corruption.

Prompted in part by a highly critical report of DFID’s anticorruption approach by the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) – itself reproached for poor use of evidence (including on this blog) – and in part by its own commissioned evidence papers into corruption (here and here), DFID has partnered with the British Academy to launch a £3.6m programme aimed at helping us understand better exactly how and why specific interventions succeed or fail in particular contexts. Some may wonder why we need yet more research on corruption; indeed, that is precisely the question I was recently asked by Jeremy Lefroy MP when giving evidence to the House of Commons Select Committee on International Development inquiry into tackling corruption overseas: “I would have thought there was plenty of evidence around. In what way do you think the evidence base needs to be strengthened, or is this just creating extra work for people who look at these things?”

The question is a reasonable one, especially given the exponential rise in the number of books and articles on corruption published over the last quarter century (as reflected in Matthew’s ever-expanding bibliography on the topic). There are many answers that could be given, but one key factor is that much of the existing research on corruption has simply been too generic to produce specific recommendations on which policymakers can act. Although it is widely recognized that corruption is not just one thing, such recognition has often not been translated into research design. Notably, many large-n studies have used an undifferentiated concept of corruption to serve as either a dependent or independent variable, seeking to explain a host of specific failings across a very wide canvas. Where there have been attempts to disaggregate corruption, these have often proposed bipartite, rather than graded, classifications (grand/petty, political/bureaucratic, need/greed, and so forth). In practice, corruption is a much more complex phenomenon than such dichotomous approaches can conceivably capture. Four observations follow from this: Continue reading

Guest Post: The Blagojevich Case and the Line Between Corruption and Horse-Trading

Jennifer Rodgers and Jacob Watkins, respectively Executive Director and Program Coordinator for the Columbia University Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity (CAPI), contribute the following guest post:

Former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich was recently back in the news, but this time for something he didn’t do wrong, when the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals vacated 5 of the 18 counts on which Blagojevich was convicted in 2011. The appellate court’s decision hinged upon the distinction between illegal corruption and legal (if distasteful) political horse-trading, an issue recently touched upon in the decision by the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit to uphold former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell’s public corruption convictions (which Matthew discussed here). The outcome of the Blagojevich appeal shows that under current U.S. law, whether or not a public official’s deal-making is illegal depends upon what exactly the official is bargaining for. Political horse-trading–exchanging one official act for another official act–is not a crime under U.S. federal law, but exchanging an official act for a private benefit is. The decision in the Blagojevich provides a useful opportunity for thinking more generally about how the law ought to draw that difficult line. Continue reading

Why is Corruption so Hard to Define?

Last week Matthew wrote that too much time and energy has been wasted trying to define corruption.  While I agree, I don’t think sufficient attention has been paid to why so many spend so much time arguing about what “corruption” means.  Matthew pointed to the reason in one of the first posts on this blog but stopped just short of the explanation.   Let me take the last, short step in the hopes it will end the interminable, unproductive wrangling over definitions.

In the earlier post Matthew wrote that corruption “implies a deviation from some ideal state” and hence “involves an implicit or explicit selection of a baseline standard of ‘correct’ behavior.”  He went on to explain that in the corruption literature the three most common baselines are the law, public opinion, and public interest.   “Corruption” can then be conduct that deviates from what the law provides, that diverges from what the public thinks is wrongful, or that is at odds with the public interest.  The definition of “corruption” depends upon the baseline; each baseline, as Matthew explained, leads to a different approach to defining “corruption.”

With one slight emendation, Matthew is correct.  But I think making that correction is important for taking the analysis the next step and, I hope, ending, or at least reducing, fruitless debate over definitions. Continue reading