Lawrence Lessig — Setting the Framework for Institutional Corruption

The first Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics Lab seminar of the 2012-13 academic year convened on September 13, 2012. Professor Lessig gave a presentation on a chapter from his recent book, which defines institutional corruption as something inherently different from individual corruption, such as bribery. Professor Lessig's definition asserts that institutional corruption occurs when institutions develop improper dependencies, resulting in a loss of necessary public trust and a weakening of the effectiveness of those institutions. At this point in the seminar, there was some discussion of how Professor Lessig's definition differs from that of Dennis Thompson's earlier conception of the term, defined as political gain by public officials under conditions that in general tend to promote private interests. However, in the context of this new definition of institutional corruption, two fundamental concepts emerge: independence and trust. Independence, or the effectiveness of an institution to perform its intended function free from improper influences, must be maintained in order for the trust of an institution to be secured. To that end, trust can be considered a function of independence.

Throughout the course of the discussion, Professor Lessig focused on the ways in which Congress epitomizes this new definition of institutional corruption. In particular, he argued that Congress has evolved from the Framers' original conception of representation that "should be dependent on the people alone," to representation that is dependent on both the people and now campaign funders. In short, this new dependency undermines the Framers' original conception of exclusive representation dependent on the people. Perhaps most troubling, however, is how this dependence on campaign contributors produces a subtle "bending" effect in policy implemented by representatives beholden to private interests. What's more, the mere presence of money in the wrong place not only erodes public confidence in the institution, but also fuels an underlying cynicism of Congress.

Following Professor Lessig's presentation, the discussion primarily focused on the definition of trust and how it relates to the concept of institutional corruption. One participant questioned if it would be possible to define trust in an absolute sense and depoliticize it from any ideological agendas. A consensus was reached that this might well be impossible to do for some institutions. Professor Lessig explained that for his conceptualization of institutional corruption, trust could be understood in a narrower sense, as the public's capacity to act on the words of a particular institution, or come to question that particular institution. For example, if the Department of Public Health orders the public to immunize children against a certain disease, will the public act on these words, or question them? Finally, another seminar participant suggested that there might be a stark difference between the concept of trust and trustworthiness, and that it would be necessary to differentiate the two concepts to arrive at a more empirical understanding of institutional corruption.

In summary, ideas of independence and trust were discussed as they relate to institutional corruption. Participants of the seminar debated the meaning of trust versus trustworthiness, and considered its role in determining and preserving the efficacy of institutions.