Guest Post: A Call for Higher Integrity Standards and Deeper Democratization

Jeroen Michels, Policy Analyst at the OECD, and Michael Johnston, the Charles A. Dana Professor of Political Science at Colgate University, contribute today’s guest post:

Many of the recent woes and challenges of democracies worldwide—such as fading policy consensus, populist discontent, and widening equality gaps—have been fueled, at least in part, by corruption and unethical practices (not all of which are currently illegal). The Panama Papers and similar leaks have dented the reputation of elected politicians, established firms, and respected countries. Soon after their term in office, some public sector leaders have taken up lucrative posts and board memberships in banks, lobbying firms, and multinationals, leaving voters disillusioned about political integrity and the intertwinement of elite networks across sectors in society. Less visible but equally harmful can be the ways in which narrow interests seek to influence public decision-making for their own profit. Inequalities in access to policymaking processes, often reflecting inequalities in wealth and status, often lead to decisions that benefit and further empower those narrow interests, which exacerbates inequalities and fosters the perception of politics as unfair or illegitimate. Against the backdrop of widening income gaps between the rich and poor, the abuse of power leading to a concentration of economic resources in the hands of fewer people is a worrisome prospect.

As a result, these legal and illegal forms of influence peddling corrode the meanings and mechanisms of democracy itself. As Professor Mark Warren has argued, corruption can be described as duplicitous exclusion: corruption undermines democracy by excluding people from decisions that affect them and in which they expect to have a voice. When people lose confidence that public decisions are taken for reasons that are publicly available and justifiable, and that those in official positions take citizen views and interests seriously, they often become cynical, expecting duplicity in public speech. This tarnishes all public officials, whether or not they are corrupt. And when people are mistrustful of government, they are also cynical about their own capacities to act in favor of the public good. Elections, for too many citizens, become a way to reject traditional democratic values and practices.

There are no quick fixes or easy remedies to this dilemma, but there are two things that activists and reformers must emphasize: 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

Are Aggregate Corruption Indicators Coherent and/or Useful?: Further Reflections

Last week, I used Professor Michael Johnston’s recent post on the methodological and conceptual problems with national-level perceived corruption indicators as an opportunity to respond to some common criticisms of research that relies on these indicators. In particular, I have frequently heard (and interpreted Professor Johnston as advancing) two related criticisms: (1) composite indicators of “corruption” are inherently flawed because “corruption” is a multifaceted phenomenon, comprised of a range of diverse activities that cannot be compared on the same scale, let alone aggregated into a single metric; and (2) corruption is sufficiently diverse within a single country that it is inappropriate to offer a national-level summary statistic for corruption. (These points are related but separate: One could believe that corruption is a sufficiently coherent concept that one can sensibly talk about the level of “corruption,” but still object to attempting to represent an entire country’s corruption level with a single number; one could also endorse the idea that national-level summary statistics can be useful and appropriate, even when there’s a lot of intra-country variation, but still object to the idea that “corruption” is a sufficiently coherent phenomenon that one can capture different sorts of corruption on the same scale.) For the reasons I laid out in my original post, while I share some of the concerns about over-reliance on national-level perceived corruption indicators, I think these critiques—if understood as fundamental conceptual objections—are misguided. Most of the measures and proxies we use in studying social phenomena aggregate distinct phenomena, and in this regard (perceived) corruption is no different from war, wealth, cancer, or any number of other objects of study.

Professor Johnston has written a nuanced, thoughtful reply (with a terrific title, “1.39 Cheers for Quantitative Analysis”). It is clear that he and I basically agree on many of the most fundamental points. Still, I think there are still a few places where I might respectfully disagree with his position. I realize that this back-and-forth might start to seem a little arcane, but since so much corruption research uses aggregate measures like the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), and since criticisms of these measures are likewise so common, I thought that perhaps one more round on this might not be a bad idea.

Let me address the two main lines of criticism noted above, and then make some more general observations. Continue reading

The Level-of-Aggregation Question in Corruption Measurement

Recently I learned that CDA Collaborative (a nonprofit organization that works on a variety of development and conflict-resolution projects) has launched a new blog on corruption. Though it’s a new platform, they already have a few of interesting posts up, and it’s worth a look.

While I’m always happy to advertise new platforms in the anticorruption blogosphere, in this post I mostly want to focus on the first entry in the CDA’s new blog, a post by Professor Michael Johnston entitled “Breaking Out of the Methodological Cage.” It’s basically a critique of the anticorruption research literature’s alleged (over-)reliance on quantitative methods, in particular cross-national regression analyses using country-level corruption indices (such at the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) or Worldwide Governance Indicators (WGI) graft index). There are some things in Professor Johnston’s post that I agree with, and much that I disagree with. I want to focus on one issue in particular: the question of the right unit of analysis, or level of aggregation, to use when attempting to measure corruption.

Professor Johnston has two related complaints (or maybe two variants on the same underlying complaint) regarding these national-level perceived corruption measures. First, he complains these “[o]ne dimensional indices tell us … that corruption is the same thing everywhere, varying only in amount[.]”  In other words, corruption indices lump a whole bunch of disparate phenomena together under the same umbrella term “corruption,” ignoring the internal diversity of that category. Second, he contends that “relying … on country-level data is to assume that corruption is a national attribute, like GDP per capita” when in fact “corruption arises in highly specific processes, structural niches, and relationships.” Corruption, he explains, is not an attribute of countries, but of more specific contexts, involving “real people … in complex situations[.]”

Respectfully, I think that these points are either wrong or irrelevant, depending on how they are framed. Continue reading