The Banality of Corruption

Thoughts from Lab Fellow Mike Jones on the recent Conference on Institutional Corruption.

In Eichman in Jerusalem: a Report on the Banality of Evil, Hannah Arendt famously argued that evil is all too frequently the product of normal people accepting the tenets and prescriptions of a morally corrupted system. It was a compelling story about the origins of evil when she made it in 1963; it is also a compelling story about corruption that we tell here at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics. Indeed, it is—in my opinion—the central defining characteristic of our definition of institutional corruption that separates how we have come to study corruption from more traditional approaches.

Traditional understandings of corruption have focused on bad actors doing bad things, usually for personal gain. Such understandings have usefully let us shake our collective moralized fingers at individually corrupted souls like the Jack Abramoffs and the Rod Blagojeviches of the world. Here at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, we have substantially broadened the definition of corruption to include when rules and norms comprising an institution are such that they create an improper dependency for that institution: when doctors prescribe medications based on incentives from pharmaceutical companies and not patient health; when judges are incentivized to serve the needs of economic or partisan interests over the law; or, when Congress serves moneyed interests and not the interests of the general public welfare. In short, our definition, much like Arendt’s, focuses the camera lens on otherwise good (i.e., normal) souls doing bad things because the system is broken. Like I said, it is a compelling story.

On Saturday, February 4th, 2012 the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics hosted a conference on institutional corruption. After the post-conference dinner, there was an open forum where guests could speak freely. Professor Arthur Applbaum of the Harvard Kennedy School offered a potent question for those of us studying institutional corruption. Might there be consequences for piercing and expanding the definition of corruption? Laying examples before the audience, Professor Applbaum invoked the terms rape and murder to demonstrate the power of words and how specific meanings imbued in these terms carry precise messages, both difficult to misunderstand and carrying distinct emotive connotations. For example, invoke the term murder and all listening will understand you to mean little else than to kill another human being unlawfully. His argument was that corruption is one of these words—crisp, clear, concise—and to expand the scope of what corruption is risks stripping it of its precision and potency, which may, in turn, have negative consequences.

In my estimation, we should think carefully about Professor Applbaum’s provocative question. On the one hand, when we consider the low hanging fruit of doctors and their expected dependency on patient health and judges with their expected dependency on the law, our use of corruption seems to intuitively adhere to its more commonly understood meaning. Such low hanging fruit doesn’t challenge the definition at all, really. Why? You would be hard pressed to find people that disagree about the proper dependency of doctors and judges. However, when you move away from consensus into a realm where reasonable people can disagree about the proper dependency of an institution, you risk depleting corruption of so much of that imbued meaning that makes the term powerful in the first place.

Let’s consider what we hold to be a paradigmatic case here at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics: Congress. We frequently contend that members of Congress are improperly dependent upon interests that provide them money for reelection. The proper dependency, we contend, is for members to be dependent upon the people, whereby citizens should have at least the opportunity for equal voice. But might reasonable people disagree on this point? Of course, and they do. These dissenters will point to the original design of the U.S. system where institutions like the Senate and Electoral College clearly reject the concept of equal voice for all citizens. They will point to the pluralist arguments presented in the Federalist Papers that channel group conflict and representation, building upon these points to argue that money is a necessary means to assess the commitment, passion, and wherewithal of these groups.

Of course, reasonable people will disagree with these arguments too (as I do). The point is that contested institutional dependencies run the risk of weakening the collective understanding of what it means for something to be corrupt and such a weakening potentially undermines the efforts of our studies here at the Center more generally. Or, as Professor Applbaum argued, we risk morphing the term into a mere rhetorical device. Such a morphing is likely to have consequences for the study of corruption. Although it is unclear to me exactly what those consequences might be, it is clear that should corruption fall into the same lexical abyss as more abused terms such as “Nazi” and “awesome,” our understanding and articulation of the relationships we hope to specify in our research will not be any easier. More importantly, communicating those findings more broadly could become quite a problem.

Whether or not a protean corruption is a banal corruption is something we should carefully consider. I think such considerations begin with precisely spelling out how to diagnose an improper dependency, something we at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics have yet to do.

Michael D. Jones
Research Fellow, Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics

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View the recordings of this: introduction, panel 1, panel 2, panel 3