Lawrence Lessig — Institutional Corruption

The first Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics Lab Seminar of the 2010-11 academic year convened on September 14, 2010. Participants discussed a chapter from Professor Lessig's upcoming book, which aims to craft a new definition of institutional corruption. This definition goes beyond the ordinary definition of corruption as bribery, to encompass a type of corruption that occurs when institutions develop improper dependencies, resulting in a loss of public trust and a weakening of the effectiveness of those institutions. In the course of discussion, two primary themes emerged as participants sought to critique and expand upon the notions of trust and dependency that are implicated in this definition.

Given the significance of "dependence" to this definition of institutional corruption, there was some discussion of how one should define proper vs. improper dependence. While under certain conditions it seems clear what the proper sort of dependence should be (e.g. members of Congress should be dependent on their constituents) the notion is context specific, and it is therefore important to consider the appropriate structure for the institution when considering what its proper dependency should be. However, some questions were raised as to how an institution should ensure that such proper dependencies are maintained, beyond simply expecting people to be "strong" enough to avoid falling victim to the influences that would lead them to develop the wrong kind of dependencies. First, it seems necessary to structure institutions in such a way as to avoid having the improper dependencies develop in the first place. To overcome an addiction, an addict would likely remove the abused substance from their home, rather than keep the substance in their vicinity while simply trying to overcome the urge to indulge. In the same way, it was suggested that restrictions be put in place to prohibit the acceptance of certain kinds of money, perks, etc., so that rather than ask people to simply be strong enough to resist these influences, such influences would be removed entirely.

Closely entwined with this idea of "proper" dependence is the concept of trust, and the extent to which a loss of public trust in an institution also weakens the effectiveness of that institution. Several questions were raised regarding the relationship between trust and efficacy, though in general it was determined that public trust is necessary to get people engaged, thereby leading to greater efficacy (particularly in government). However, some participants pointed out that public trust may not always be a relevant issue, depending on the institution. Additionally, it was suggested that we find a means of talking empirically about public trust, perhaps by finding a way to isolate the variables that affect public trust, and developing a model that describes that relationship. Several participants pointed out the difficulty of defining trust, noting that it is often used interchangeably with other terms like belief and confidence, while also noting that it may be necessary to distinguish between trust and trustworthiness, given the possibility of having misplaced trust in an institution. Finally, the question of transparency was raised, both in terms of its necessity, but also its possible destructiveness. While many people assume that more transparency is necessarily better, it can often lead to undesirable outcomes. Given that too much transparency can lead people to become cynical or simply habituated, it was suggested that we be sensitive in how transparency measures are deployed, given that mere disclosure alone does not provide an effective solution.

In summary, notions of proper and improper dependencies were discussed, as well as the means of preventing the formation of improper dependencies within institutions. Participants debated the meaning of trust, and its role in determining the efficacy of an institution, as well as the role of transparency in combating institutional corruption.