Three Reasons Anticorruption Academics Fail: A Commentary on Rothstein

Last week, Professor Bo Rothstein, one of the most influential senior researchers in the anticorruption field, published a blog post entitled “Three Reasons Anti-Corruption Programs Fail.” The post (which draws from Professor Rothstein’s earlier writings and his new book) sets out to explain why the anticorruption efforts sponsored by a combination of domestic reformers and the international development community have been a “huge policy failure.” The three reasons for this purported failure laid out in the post are (1) use of the wrong definition of corruption (2) use of the wrong social science theory to frame and analyze corruption, and (3) locating corruption “in the wrong social spaces.”

I am disappointed to report that I find little in the post that is correct. Professor Rothstein’s post does illustrate some important and ongoing failures in anticorruption thinking—just not in the way that he intended. Rather, the post inadvertently illustrates certain tendencies that afflict a certain strain of academic work on the corruption topic—tendencies that render scholarship on corruption far less useful to the world than it could or should be. I’m particularly troubled when I encounter bright young up-and-coming researchers who appear to be misled by these tendencies. So with all due respect to Professor Rothstein, I will use his post as a framing device to highlight the problems I see and to urge the new generation of anticorruption researchers to be mindful of them.

Before proceeding, an important note: Despite what I just said, and what I’m going to say in the remainder of the post, I like and respect Professor Rothstein. We have met on several occasions, and he has always treated me graciously. He was the driving force behind the founding and development of the University of Gothenburg’s Quality of Government Institute, which consistently produces excellent research and researchers. He is a prolific writer, and by all accounts a generous and supportive mentor, coauthor, and teacher. My objective in this post is most definitely not to entertain readers with the gratuitous academic blood-sport that is unfortunately too popular in some quarters. Yet at the same time, precisely because Professor Rothstein is such an influential figure in the field, his writings ought to be subjected to rigorous critical scrutiny, especially given the importance of the topic. This isn’t a game, and we must hold one another to very high standards, even when this means assessing harshly the work of people we generally like and respect. I suspect Professor Rothstein would agree with that last sentiment, though probably not with anything else in this post.

With that important note out of the way, let me highlight the three common tendencies in academic writing on corruption that Professor Rothstein’s post illustrates: (1) an unhealthy and unhelpful obsession with definitions; (2) misunderstanding and misuse of social science concepts, particularly a fixation on capital-T “Theories”; and (3) sweeping and uncharitable dismissiveness of prior work and thinking on the topic.

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Johnston and Fritzen: The Conundrum of Corruption

Michael Johnston had done it again.  A — if not the — dean of corruption studies has a new book out.  This one a collaboration with a real dean, Scott Fritzen, professor at the University of Oklahoma and dean of its College of International Studies. The two’s The Conundrum of Corruption: Reform for Social Justice, just published in an affordable paperback edition from Routledge, is an invaluable guide to the latest learning on corruption, chronicling the rise of the international anticorruption movement, what has been learned, and what those lessons say about how to carry the fight against corruption forward.

But warning. Readers looking for an inventory of “best practices,” anticorruption “toolkits,” flashy technological innovations, and game-changing carrots and sticks will be disappointed.  Not a one is to be found.  Instead, Johnston and Fritzen explain why practitioners’ two decade plus search for such “silver bullets” has fallen flat and what corruption should concentrate on instead.

Some highlights. The role of cross-national measures of corruption like Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index and whether they have outlived their usefulness. The value of principal-agent analysis and how it can be misused. What civil society can do.

Among those for whom the book is a must read are members of what the authors term the “anticorruption industry.” (Those in development agencies, international organizations, foundations, and academia know who you are.) And those who uttered the phrase “political will.” No one should ever, ever again use it until they have read what the authors say about this much abused and misunderstood term.

Those engaged in the fight against corruption, those teaching the next generation of corruption fighters, or those simply looking for an authoritative guide to the issue will want to make room on their shelf for what is sure to become a classic work on the subject.

Corruption Is Not (Mainly) an Assurance Problem

The study of corruption these days is often heavily empirical, involving the close analysis of case studies or quantitative data. But sometimes it’s helpful to take a step back and think about the nature of the corruption phenomenon in more abstract, theoretical terms—not because this sort of abstract thinking translates neatly and directly into specific policy recommendations (it usually doesn’t), but rather because it helps us organize the otherwise overwhelming mass of particular information in a way that facilitates thinking, in broad strategic terms, about the kind of problem we’re dealing with and what kinds of interventions might be most promising.

It’s in that spirit that a range of contributions have suggested that our conventional ways of thinking about and responding to corruption are flawed, or at least incomplete, because they fail to recognize the extent to which the problem of corruption is a manifestation of the bad equilibrium in what game theorists would call an “assurance game.” The basic idea behind an assurance game is often traced back to Rousseau’s parable of the “Stag Hunt,” in which two hunters are chasing a stag when a hare runs by; if both hunters continue to pursue the stag, they’ll catch it and both will be better off (half a stag is better than a whole hare), but if one hunter chases after the hare, that hunter will get something while the other ends up with nothing. The key feature of this game is that it captures a setting where there are two stable outcomes (“equilibria”)—either both hunters hunt the stag or both chase the hare—and one of those (the stag) is clearly better for both of them. If both hunters go after the stag, and expect the other to do so as well, neither has an incentive to get distracted chasing the hare. But if both hunters expect the other to go after the hare, then both hunters will go after the hare themselves, because hunting the stage alone (in this parable) guarantees one will go hungry, while chasing the hare at least yields something. In that sense, the assurance game differs from the more famous “Prisoners’ Dilemma” game (and from other so-called “free rider” problems), because in the latter class of games each player has an incentive to take the “anti-social” action regardless of what everyone else is expected to do, even though everyone would be better off if they all cooperated.

What does this all have to do with corruption? Well, a number of scholars have advanced quite explicit arguments that the corruption is basically the equivalent of the hare-chasing equilibrium in the Stag Hunt: Everyone does it because everyone expects everyone else to do it, but if everyone could be assured that everyone else would act honestly, nobody would have an incentive to behave corruptly. The earliest scholarly paper of which I’m aware that argued that corruption is more like an assurance game than a prisoners’ dilemma is Professor Philip Nichols’ 2004 article, but the idea has been developed further by other scholars. For example, Professors Persson, Rothstein, and Teorell interpret the results of interviews in Kenya and Uganda as suggesting that corruption in those societies is more like an assurance game than a principal-agent problem, and in a 2019 follow-up paper these scholars argue more generally that systematic corruption “resemble[s] an assurance game…. Within this collective-action framework, unlike the single-equilibrium ‘prisoners dilemma,’ … what action is taken by any individual depends on expectations regarding how others will act.” And Professor Avinash Dixit, though more agnostic as to whether systemic corruption more closely resembles a prisoners’ dilemma or an assurance game, suggests that the latter is an important possibility. And for these and like-minded scholars, seeing corruption in these terms has important implications for how we might fight it. Professors Nichols and Dixit, for example, each independently argue for (somewhat different forms of) certification systems, which, in the assurance game context, can induce a shift from the “bad” (corrupt) equilibrium to the “good” (honest) equilibrium even without material sanctions. Professors Persson, Rothstein, and Teorell are somewhat less specific in the policy proposals that flow from seeing corruption as primarily an assurance problem, but they argue that understanding the problem in this way implies that “rather than ‘fixing the incentives,’ the important thing will be to change actors’ believes about what ‘all’ other actors are likely to do,” and that this in turn requires “a more revolutionary type of change,” though they acknowledge that we still don’t have a clear sense of what can induce successful “equilibrium shifts” of this type.

I want to push back (gently but firmly) against the notion that it’s helpful to think of corruption as (primarily) an assurance problem. But before I pursue my critique of this idea, let me start out by acknowledging that the scholars who have framed corruption as an assurance problem are almost certainly correct in highlighting that corruption is one of those social phenomena for which pervasiveness correlates with attractiveness. In other words, the more people who (are expected to) engage in corruption, the more people who (have an incentive to) engage in corruption. That insight is hardly unique to corruption, but it is certainly important in the corruption context, and may have a range of significant implications for anticorruption policy. My beef with the “corruption is an assurance problem” is not with that key insight, but with what seems to me to be a substantial exaggeration of the importance of that factor relative to other factors. Continue reading

Are Better Principals the Answer to the Corruption Problem?

Those in the business of giving policy advice know the surest way to guarantee a policymaker ignores their counsel is to say the problem is “complicated” or “there are no easy solutions” and that the best way to see the advice is accepted is to cast it in the form of a simple, straightforward solution that fits easily onto a single power point slide. World Bank economists have learned this lesson well as their recent report on how developing countries can cure corruption and related governance ills demonstrates.  Making Politics Work for Development: Harnessing Transparency and Citizen Engagement manages to state the solution to the corruption problem in one sentence: Give citizens more information about politicians so they will know which ones to vote out and which ones to keep at the next election.

The authors are able boil the complex problems of corruption and bad governance down into such a neat solution thanks to application of principal-agent theory.  But in avoiding the “it’s complicated”/“no easy solution” Scylla have they veered into the Charybdis of oversimplification?

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Corruption is BOTH a “Principal-Agent Problem” AND a “Collective Action Problem”

Let me admit right up front that this is going to be kind of a nerdy post, focused mostly (though not entirely) on questions of terminology.  But there’s a particular meme that seems to have emerged in much of the discussion of anticorruption strategy, which I think is just wrongheaded and misleading.  The meme goes something like this:

“Although some people describe corruption as a principal-agent problem, corruption is actually a collective action problem.”

(I hate to point fingers, but just so you know I’m not making this up, examples of this meme appear here, here, here, here, herehere, here, and here.  Most depressingly, the not-very-good Wikipedia entry on corruption also includes this claim.)

This statement uses sophisticated-sounding social science jargon, but to anyone who knows what the terms “principal-agent problem” and “collective action problem” actually mean, in their technical economic context, it doesn’t make much sense–at least insofar as it implies that “principal-agent problem” and “collective action problem” are mutually exclusive alternatives. In fact, corruption is both a principal-agent problem (always) and a collective action problem (often).  Recognizing the latter claim need not and should not entail rejecting the former claim; the assumption that it does not only reflects conceptual confusion, but also entails the risk that we will neglect the many insights that principal-agent theory has to offer the study and practice of anticorruption.

I am certainly not the first to make this point. Heather Marquette and Caryn Peiffer have a very nice U4 Issue Paper developing many of the same themes (in greater depth). But because this has been bugging me for a while, let me offer my take on this issue:

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