“Petty” Corruption Isn’t Petty

Grand corruption attracts plenty of attention—from activists, the mainstream media, and other commentators (including on this blog)—and for good reason. While the media may simply be riveted by the decadent lifestyles of corrupt actors, the anticorruption community has increasingly recognized the devastating impact that kleptocrats and their cronies can have. No doubt, this attention to grand corruption is welcome and recent successes in fighting it are laudable. At the same time, though, this increased focus on grand corruption carries with it the risk of making smaller, more everyday forms of corruption—sometimes called “petty” corruption—seem less consequential.

Yet so-called “petty” corruption remains widespread, and its aggregate impact should not be underestimated. By way of example, consider the most recent results from the Transparency International (TI) Global Corruption Barometer (GCB) survey of citizens in Latin America and the Caribbean, which found that one-third of people who used a public service paid a bribe in order to do so. In other words, for these 90 million people, their ability to access a government service to which they were entitled was conditioned upon an extralegal payment—and that’s just accounting for this one region.

Even as the anticorruption community rightly focuses attention on combatting grand corruption, we can’t forget the real havoc wreaked by smaller-scale corruption. So-called “petty” corruption is not a petty concern. Rather, it’s a serious, pervasive problem that deserves just as much sustained attention as does politicians buying collector cars and oceanfront properties with assets from their secret offshore bank accounts. At the risk of repeating familiar points, it’s worth reviewing the ways in which small-scale corruption has, cumulatively, a range of incredibly destructive effects:

Continue reading

Lessons of Moral Psychology for Anticorruption Strategy

Most countries attempt to fight public corruption through policies that increase the magnitude and the probability of punishment, on the logic that rational individuals will be deterred from engaging in corrupt acts if the expected costs exceed the expected benefits. This approach is certainly valuable, but it is incomplete, and anticorruption strategies based exclusively on a view of potentially corrupt public officials as “rational actors” are unlikely to be fully effective. This is because human beings are not (only) rational animals, they are also moral animals: As already discussed on this blog (see here and here), the decision-making process of a potentially corrupt public official is influenced not only by her calculation of expected (material) costs and benefits, but also by her moral values and self-image.

In fact, when people act in accordance with their own moral standards, their brain-reward centers are activated, which may explain why individuals value honesty and desire to live ethically at their own eyes. Notwithstanding, even otherwise morally upright subjects can engage in corruption. What do individuals take into account when choosing whether to engage in profitable dishonesty or to maintain their positive self-image by adhering to their moral standards?

A growing stream of research on moral psychology and neuroscience has shown that individuals employ certain psychological mechanisms, such as rationalization, that enable them to cheat at a certain level without considering themselves as “cheaters”; this, in turn, allows them to benefit from the dishonest behavior while not damaging their positive self-image. But when it becomes more difficult for people to justify their unethical behavior to themselves, the likelihood that they will engage in dishonest behavior will decrease. The tendency to engage in dishonest behavior is also affected by individuals’ ability to exercise self-control when facing temptation — that is, by their capacity to subdue their desire to attain short-term benefits in order to achieve long-term goals.

Greater attention to these insights would make possible the design of anticorruption policies tailored both to inhibit the use of rationalizations and to encourage the exertion of self-control when individuals face the opportunity to act dishonestly. For example, public agencies (especially those in corruption-prone sectors like public procurement) could take the following steps:  Continue reading

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

The Social Psychology of Corruption

There are many theories about the causes of corruption, ranging cultural explanations to economic models. But relatively little attention has been paid to the social-psychological causes of corruption, especially at the individual level. Yet as the sociologist Marina Zaloznaya persuasively argues in a recent paper, we need to pay more attention to the individual social psychology of corrupt behavior if we are to combat it effectively. And indeed, there is a small but growing number of empirical studies (including some discussed previously on this blog) that have investigated why a person might act dishonestly, and in particular consider how an individual’s tendency to commit corrupt acts may depend on both the person’s moral identity and the surrounding circumstances. Although there is still much we do not understand, this research offers some revealing insights. Continue reading