Taking a break from his GAB duties, our indefatigable editor-in-chief Matthew Stephenson provides readers of Liberties, a leading American journal on culture and politics, a tutorial on corruption. GAB readers will not want to miss it. For in less than 10,000 words, his essay not only make sense of the (tens of? hundreds of?) millions of words written on the topic but provides corruption fighters an order of battle.
Citing passages from the Hebrew Bible and the great Indian text on governance the Arthaśāstra, Matthew reminds that corruption has always been with us and always tolerated — if only grudgingly. What’s new is the extraordinary international consensus that has formed over the past quarter century to end that toleration. Matthew explains how that consensus developed and the opposition it has had to overcome. From those who argue that in some societies corruption is culturally acceptable, from those who believe corruption fosters economic development, and from those think nothing can be done to combat it.
He calls each of these claims a “quasi-myth,” for each contains a kernel of truth, just enough to make a debater’s point. He crushes each, with the cultural determinate one quoting Edmund Burke’s pithy response that the claim of “geographical morality” simply doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
The research on corruption has exploded over the past two decades. Matthew’s bibliography is now at 720 pages! He seems to have read every one of the articles, for he brings their findings to bear on the pros and cons of the various solutions that have been proposed — “wise king,” “moment of crisis,” “long slog” — interweaving stories how Denmark, Sweden, and the United States overcame entrenched corruption. He admits that taming corruption is no easy task, especially where it involves persuading corrupt elites reform is critical (“bit like trying to convince turkeys to support Thanksgiving”), but he concludes that while history shows the cancer of corruption can never be fully eradicated “progress against this chronic disease of the body politic is possible, so long as those engaged in the fight do not lose heart.”
The full text of Matthew Stephenson, “Honey and Poison: On Corruption,” Liberties, Summer 2021 is here.