On Differing Understandings of "Corruption"

by Matthew Stephenson re-blogged from the Global Anti-Corruption Blog

I’m sometimes asked how my work on anticorruption (and this blog) relates to the work of my Harvard Law School colleague Larry Lessig, who is the Director of Harvard University’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics (and who also has a widely-read blog). Under Larry’s leadership, the Safra Center has been focused primarily on “institutional corruption,” and Larry’s 2011 book Republic, Lost likewise focuses on how money corrupts the U.S. Congress. So, what’s the relationship between our two projects?

The short answer is that, although I respect and admire Larry’s work, our corruption projects are about very different thingsBy itself that’s not terribly interesting, and I wouldn’t bother posting about it except that I think the differences in our projects highlight a longstanding difficulty about the term “corruption” and its use in social science and political advocacy. I don’t want to belabor the issue—when academics run out of ideas, they argue about definitions—but maybe a few quick observations on this point are in order.

First of all, “corruption” implies deviation from some ideal state, and so defining corruption usually involves an implicit or explicit selection of a baseline standard of “correct” behavior. The three most common possibilities—none entirely satisfactory—are:

1. Law (“corruption” entails violation of specific legal prohibitions on, say, bribery, nepotism, embezzlement, etc.)

2. Public opinion (“corruption” involves acts, or patterns of behavior, that would be viewed by most citizens as wrongful abuses of power, whether or not they are illegal)

3. Public interest (“corruption” involves acts, or patterns of behavior, that contravene the public interest—whether or not the actions in question are illegal and/or the subject of widespread disapproval).

In a future post, I might go into greater detail on the strengths and weaknesses of these different approaches to defining corruption. (They all have problems.) For now, it’s sufficient to note that they are potentially quite different from one another (though they may often overlap—certain types of bribery or theft of public resources are typically illegal, widely condemned, and contrary to the public interest). Larry’s working definition of “institutional corruption” is very much a “public interest” definition:

“Institutional corruption is manifest when there is a systemic and strategic influence which is legal, or even currently ethical, that undermines the institution’s effectiveness by diverting it from its purpose or weakening its ability to achieve its purpose, including, to the extent relevant to its purpose, weakening either the public’s trust in that institution or the institution’s inherent trustworthiness.”

Indeed, Larry has developed the category of “institutional corruption” precisely to differentiate it from “other more familiar forms of corruption” which are specifically excluded from his definition. (It’s worth noting that he is not alone in advancing this sort of understanding of corruption; in recent work the anthropologist Janine Wedel has advocated a similar “public interest” definition, though her definition is capacious enough also to include more traditional forms of illegal corruption.)

By contrast, this blog focuses on what we might think of as more traditional forms of corruption—bribery, embezzlement, extortion, nepotism, misappropriation of resources, etc.—which are usually either illegal or widely condemned, or both. I have no interest in insisting on a particular definition as the correct one, or in policing the boundaries of what we consider topical. It’s more a matter of clarification.

Now, one might reasonably ask whether any of this is all that important. Corruption is a term, like many others, that has a range of different meanings. As long as those who use the term are sufficiently clear about what meaning they have in mind, why does it matter what gets labeled “corrupt”? That’s more or less my view, but I do think there are two reasons it’s important to take seriously these conflicts over the definition of corruption:

* First, people are not, in fact, always clear about what they mean by “corruption”—this is true, for example, of a number of widely-used corruption indices, which rely on asking experts or average citizens about their perception of the extent of “corruption,” usually without defining the term (or using a vague, capacious definition).

* Second, in ordinary speech the word “corruption” is not just a descriptive term, but connotes moral condemnation. So there’s a political aspect to what gets labeled “corruption,” even if, for social scientific research, the word (if appropriately and clearly defined) can be treated as a neutral term of art. I think that’s precisely the reason Larry invokes the concept of “institutional corruption” to describe a set of problems and issues (like the role of money in politics) that were already quite familiar. By relabeling certain acts or behavior patterns as “corrupt,” he and his colleagues at the Safra Center are trying to influence public opinion (and the law). Likewise, scholars like Wedel have pointed out that by labeling certain forms of nefarious influence (those more prevalent in poor countries, like bribery) as “corruption,” while treating other forms (those more prevalent in rich Western countries, like lobbying and campaign donations and shady influence networks) as outside the scope of “corruption,” we may create a distorted perception of patterns of undesirable influence on government decisions.

Nonetheless, while we need to be mindful of those concerns, it seems to me that there’s value in studying the causes and consequences of traditional forms of “corruption.” Doing so is not meant to convey an inherent normative judgment. Whether “corruption” (according to the legal and/or public opinion definitions) is good or bad–and whether corruption, so defined, is better or worse than other questionable forms of influence over decision-makers (like lawful lobbying or campaign contributions or social ties)–are matters for research, not matters of definition.