What Is Political Corruption?
The study of political corruption has been beset with definitional disputes for some time now. While people periodically speak of corruption as if it had a fixed, unchanging meaning, scholars attempting to define the term with precision repeatedly stumble on the variety of significations it can have. The exact behaviors that are considered corrupt vary depending on historical, geographic, or cultural contexts. The purchase of offices was a regular practice in the ancien régime; today it is frowned upon (or at the very least rebranded as a "public-private partnership"). Paying for a public service such as the service of a judge was once considered perfectly acceptable, but today we would balk at such user fees. Purchasing votes used to be widespread practice; now it can only be done through tax breaks and "pork" projects. Clashes between competing conceptions of corruption are not hard to find; they are particularly striking if one juxtaposes the mores of gift and market societies. And it is not merely between societies that such differences manifest themselves—the dimensions of corruption are contested within societies themselves, with people exhibiting radically opposed views of what behaviors or attitudes constitute a breach of civic integrity. Nor is it an uncontested matter whether the term "corruption" refers to behavior, character, mores, beliefs; or whether the thing corrupted refers to a "system" (as in "systemic corruption") or to the behavior or character of an individual or a group.
There are, to be sure, important commonalities that one can discern across history and geography. In many states where the conspicuous prevalence of bribery, nepotism, and clientelism might lead one to suspect that different attitudes toward these behaviors obtained, one finds that the populations nonetheless widely term these behaviors corrupt and express views quite consistent with those in countries where people rarely encounter bribery; in many different historical periods with strikingly different conceptions of political office, we encounter lamentations about corruption that appear perfectly intelligible to our late modern understanding. But though such commonalities should warn us against cultural or historical relativism, we must nonetheless remain attuned to the great difficulty of establishing a fixed, universal definition of corruption. Is it bribery of officials, nepotism, partisanship? Is it the decline in civic virtue or the loss of social rootedness? Is it the decline in piety? Is it the attendance to private interests over the public good (however defined)? Is it "duplicitous exclusion," as Mark Warren would define the democratic conception of corruption? Is it the opposite of "impartiality," as Oskar Kurer, Bo Rothstein, and Jan Teorell have proposed? Does corruption merely speak to breaches of existing laws or norms, or can there be entirely legal behaviors and relationships that are nonetheless corrupt? And how are such matters to be determined?
There is currently a small but growing literature of a philosophical nature on the subject of corruption's precise definition. Warren's work has attempted to define corruption in terms of the norms of democratic theory; Seumas Miller has sought a wide definition of "institutional corruption" capturing the great variety of abuses that come under that name. Others such as Lawrence Lessig and Zephyr Teachout have sought a definition anchored in the republican tradition of the American founding. Others yet have attempted to define the concept as a breach of impartiality, drawing on liberal political theorists such as Brian Barry. Without entering into a detailed examination of these important contributions here (we will visit some of them in the course of our study), let us merely note that in spite of these laudable efforts, the philosophical study of corruption's meaning remains relatively marginal in both the field of corruption studies and in political theory. In a recent survey of this debate, Mark Philp and Elizabeth Dávid-Barrett lament that "the absence of significant reflection in political theory on the nature, forms, and sources of corruption is a serious failing of the subdiscipline."
While there are some notable exceptions, Philp and Dávid-Barrett's lamentation is correct: discussion of corruption within political theory has tended to be sporadic. The relative absence of sustained reflection on the concept should be somewhat surprising, for not only is corruption a prevalent worry in our public culture today (for reasons I need not elaborate), but, if J. G. A. Pocock is to be believed, it was "from 1688 to 1776 (and after), the central question in Anglophone political theory." If this is the case (and, while we will have cause to revise many of Pocock's arguments, we may agree with his general claim about the centrality of corruption discourse in the "Atlantic" tradition), then the absence of corruption as a central matter of concern for political theorists today should give us pause. How could a concept so central to both contemporary public discourse and to our political-philosophical tradition have such little space in political theory today?
If political theorists have in the main not been focused upon the question, the more practically minded students of corruption have tended to downplay the philosophical problems entailed by the term. A great deal of literature begins by recognizing definitional difficulties, but attempts to settle these questions quickly in order to fix on a definition that can serve as a tool for social-scientific advancement and legislative action. Arvind Jain, for instance, writes, "Although it is difficult to agree on a precise definition, there is consensus that corruption refers to acts in which the power of public office is used for personal gain in a manner that contravenes the rules of the game." There is much to be said for this formulation, but I fear that there is no such consensus about it. An active community is studying "institutional corruption," which addresses precisely those types of corruption that do not contravene the "rules of the game" but rather are a product of poor rules. The root of Jain's definition is the phrase used most often by international organizations such as the World Bank: "Corruption is the abuse of public office for private gain." This definition has the virtue of being expansive. Of course, the definition is somewhat limited in focusing solely on governmental office (Transparency International prefers the more neutral "entrusted power"), in focusing only on behavior, and in tending toward thinking in terms of individual breaches of norms rather than structural pathologies. More important, the definition raises more questions than it answers, for how are we to understand all of these terms? The difficulty is not that "abuse," "public office," and "private gain" cannot be defined; the difficulty is that such definitions are replete with presuppositions that can become straitjackets. The way in which such terms are defined is always overladen with political and normative assumptions. Susan Rose-Ackerman, one of the most prominent economists to study corruption, begins a handbook on the subject by noting (with some regret) that there is a tendency in her field to eschew moral reflection: "Writing on corruption often stakes out a moral high ground, but economists are reluctant to sermonize on right or wrong." No doubt some discussion of corruption slips into sermonizing—that is a danger in all moral discourse—but there is, in the social-scientific wariness of moral categories, a greater danger of slipping into moral inarticulacy. From the perspective of economics, there is doubtless much to be gained by eschewing moral discussion in favor of measuring things like illicit transfers of wealth. But whatever progress this bracketing of moral matters permits the economists to make (and it is not negligible), it can be harmful if it is allowed to substitute for the task of ethical and political philosophy, for it closes off avenues of discussion and, indeed, eliminates from consideration entire traditions of thought (among which are traditions in which the very normative assumptions of modern economics would themselves be considered corrupting). The discourse of political corruption bears a heavy normative load, notwithstanding the persistence of scientific attempts to keep "values" from contaminating facts.
I wish neither to condemn the social scientists' desire to delimit their realm of inquiry nor to castigate practically minded reformers seeking a toolkit suitable to their task, but rather to indicate that political theory must proceed in a different manner. And the concept of corruption in particular merits sustained normative reflection, for it is of much greater significance than is often recognized. The concept of political corruption is fundamentally an expression of political morality; to denounce corruption is to affirm some vision of integrity, wholeness, or political health. In an important 1997 article, Mark Philp made the straightforward observation that "one line definitions of political corruption are inherently misleading because they obscure the extent to which the concept is rooted in ways of thinking about politics—that is, of there being some 'naturally sound condition' (variously described) from which corrupt acts deviate." While there is a small but important body of work dedicated to the question, a great deal of inquiry on the subject has tended to neglect Philp's basic insight and to proceed by attempting to settle definitional questions at the outset. Such a procedure is fully sensible if one has a practical penchant: if, say, one wants to pursue cross-national comparisons of corruption levels, or one wishes to evaluate the effectiveness of different policies, one cannot be satisfied with shifting and contested definitions. The difficulty, of course, is that the definitions such scholars settle upon tend to assume and reinforce a given set of normative presuppositions. In spite of the empirical sophistication of the literature on the subject, there continues to be a degree of philosophical neglect pervading thought on corruption that would surprise us if the concept in question were liberty, representation, justice, rights, power, autonomy, or any of the myriad terms that are the heart and soul of political discourse.
Perhaps this derives from the fact that serious inquiry on the meaning of corruption opens up a vast field of contested political questions. For corruption is a negative concept, one structured by its opposite, the positive conception of healthy political relationships. To inquire into the term is to question our own politico-moral ideals. Corruption discourse often has the effect (and possibly even the purpose) of displacing politics because it attempts to police relations between citizens and their institutions while taking as given the very contours of a healthy polity. To explore the nature of corruption is to open up to questioning those very contours.
This book explores how a political metaphor of sickness, dissolution, and dirtiness orders the political imaginary. Judith Shklar once observed that philosophers have tended to focus much more on virtue than vice; similarly, corruption has tended to be overshadowed by its opposite. But just as freedom must be understood in light of our understanding of servitude, just as the virtues cannot be conceived without their corresponding vices, so too must political integrity be understood by its opposite. The manner in which corruption is conceived structures political life, for the way in which we divide the corrupt from the pure defines our relationship to the public realm, to the law and to each other. The lack of focus on the study of corruption in political theory may be a further symptom of what Charles Taylor has called the "ethics of inarticulacy," the avoidance of substantive discussion about the basis for our moral claims. But if the concept has such importance, then we cannot begin with definitions, or even begin by delimiting the scope of the inquiry. The urge to stipulate an acceptable definition at the outset is sensible and practical, but it is antiphilosophical, foreclosing questions about the nature of the good regime and the good life. Equally important, the urge to stipulate a definition a priori is antipolitical, for it circumvents debate over substantive questions via definitional fiat. Consider the following concrete question: is a personal campaign donation of three thousand dollars to a candidate for public office an example of political corruption? Of course, there is a simple legal answer to this question—in jurisdiction X it is acceptable, in Y it is not. But behind the decision to set such limits—and behind the various challenges to such laws—are important underlying assumptions about the manner in which private interest relates to the public, the nature of political integrity and the acceptable methods of political participation, the manner in which individual interests are to be aggregated in a representative democracy, the type of dependence such a donation entails, the nature of influence and incentives, the place of gifts and reciprocity in the public realm. . . the list could go on at some length, but the point to emphasize is simply that to think about this question entails thinking about a set of anterior questions that are the heart of the tradition of political philosophy.
The subject of this study, then, is not the ins and outs of bribery, nepotism, conflict of interest, state capture, and so forth, material on which there is a growing and excellent empirical literature, but rather the discourse of political corruption. We will explore its contours in several important moments in modern political philosophy from the Renaissance to the early twentieth century. Corruption discourse, this work insists, is fundamentally political morality. What is more—and here I offer a more controversial claim—it is political teleology, for it hangs on the presupposition that there is a type of healthy regime and officeholder. Herein lies the paradox of the concept's use today: corruption discourse suggests a falling away from purity, health, or integrity, yet it flourishes today in a context that is inarticulate about its moral ideals and wary of teleological thought. This adoption of a morally laden vocabulary by those who have a professional aversion to political morality should give us pause. Corruption is the reverse of legitimacy and integrity; it is the dark shadow behind a conception of how societies ought to be ordered and what norms ought to govern public and private life. Shedding light on our assumptions about corruption is an important dimension of our search for self-understanding.
I have said that the discourse of political corruption is teleological. By this I do not mean that it entails a historical teleology (though it might), but rather that it entails something akin to the Aristotelian view that there is such a thing as a manner of living politically that is most conducive to human flourishing. There is much to be said about the degree of ethical monism the concept entails, but it is insignificant speech to make use of this concept in the absence of a thick conception of political wholeness. A metaphor referring to dissolution, disease, and dirt, "political corruption" opposes conceptions of wholeness, health, and cleanliness. The paradox of corruption discourse today is that it thrives in an age that conceives of itself as thoroughly cured from that strange mental aberration of final causes and thick descriptions of the good. I wish to suggest that when the language of corruption is employed by avowedly anti-teleological writers, they are engaged in a terminological contradiction and are unwittingly involved in the propagation of an image of the natural or healthy society. Indeed, such writers are fully as hubristic as any propagators of classical accounts of the good, for they seek to propagate their imaginary universally, but their aims are hidden (willfully or not) under such deceptively nonpolitical sounding banners as "reform," "good governance," "quality of government," and "transparency."
My purpose in this book is to examine the manner in which the concept has been deployed by some of occidental modernity's more thoughtful philosophical expositors. I indicate a variety of ways in which the language of political corruption has been invoked in modernity and suggest that all of these different ways of understanding political pathology live on in contemporary discourse, rubbing up against one another uncomfortably. The book proposes neither a complete history of the concept (which would be unwieldy), nor an exhaustive survey of modern political theorists' views on the subject, but rather an exploration of seven important and distinct modes in which the concept has been deployed since the Renaissance: leadership ethics, republicanism, the politics of transparency, nostalgic denigrations of the bureaucratic state, liberal moderation, revolutionary purism, and the ethics of bureaucratic office. The presentation, while chronological, is purposely not a linear history of how the concept has developed from one form to another in a straightforward evolution toward a univocal "modern" definition. Each mode of understanding corruption has its distinctive contours and suggests distinctive types of cure. The modes overlap in important ways, but more often than not they clash. And the contest between them is both philosophical—in that they presume underlying normative principles and conceptions of human flourishing—and political—in that they entail different modes of ordering the public thing.
This work examines continuities and discontinuities of the language of corruption in political thought from the Renaissance to the twentieth century. It both situates arguments in their historical contexts and argues for their continuing relevance in contemporary political thought. In so doing, it will equally offend the universalist and the strict historicist. The study is premised on the observations that the concept of corruption has had numerous meanings historically but that important family resemblances exist between deployments of the term, and the discourse of political corruption has a structure and function that is stable and enduring. The visions of corruption that I shall examine are not mere historical artifacts. We ought, in general, to be wary of both the universalism that runs roughshod over historical particularity and the historicism that treats political ideas as historical fatalities. To engage with the textual tradition is to inhabit the intermediary space between history and eternity. The visions of corruption and its cure on offer here all conform to certain moral intuitions we encounter in contemporary thought, just as they all inspire important ambivalences. I wish to bring to light these ambivalences and to render clearer the moral and political presuppositions of these different manners of conceiving of corruption.
Through a series of chronologically ordered philosophical snapshots, then, we will explore the concept's use in seven historical moments in which anxieties about corruption were running high. The discussion within these pages has a certain relation to J. G. A. Pocock's The Machiavellian Moment, which did so much to uncover the centrality of corruption in republican discourse, particularly in the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. But this book takes distance from Pocock's account, disaggregating some of the uses of corruption that Pocock takes to be part of a continuous republican political language. There are different forms of republican corruption talk, and there are some protagonists in the Pocockean story that I argue should not be placed in the republican tradition at all. On a methodological level, there is something in the grandeur of the historical narrative Pocock pursued that I have not attempted. This book is historical in the sense of attending to the contexts in which the authors expressed themselves, but—in distinction to Pocock's avowed philosophical abstemiousness—it is philosophical in its normative aim. My primary goal is not to offer a grand narrative of a political language's development and adaptations as it moves through different historical contexts. This work canvasses, rather, a number of important modes in which the term has been—and continues to be—deployed in occidental modernity. It does not provide an account of the concept's evolution. The reader should not infer that the final position we examine—corruption as the sullying of pure Weberian bureaucracy—is a culminating point of a continuous story of the concept's growth and transformation. Like the other conceptions of corruption canvassed here, Weber's vision of corruption has a distinct history in the development of the modern administrative state, but my purpose is not primarily to narrate that history; it is rather to delineate the contours of this mode of thinking of corruption, and place it in conversation with other competing conceptions that are derived from our intellectual tradition and that continue to live on today.
If there may appear to be a slightly uneven weighting of the historical periods selected for examination, with the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries bearing the brunt of the weight and the early twentieth century bringing up the rear, I wish to insist that this is not a judgment on the relative historical importance of these periods; it is rather based on the paradigmatic nature of the instantiations of corruption discourse that I wish to examine. Had the work's intention been to provide a thoroughgoing history of corruption and reform, it would have delved into a number of different modern periods. In the Anglosphere alone, one would need to give much greater attention to the seventeenth century (a period in which the mores of a patronage economy ran up against widespread worries about bribery and a debasement of mores). The great civil service reforms in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Britain and America would have equally been essential movements to examine; and historians of corruption would naturally also want to study of the twists and turns of corruption and reform through the twentieth century.
The texts examined in this work represent enduring and philosophically compelling manners of thinking about corruption and its cures. In each case, we will be engaged in a transhistorical conversation linking these authors both with present concerns and with classical political philosophy that spoke of corruption and integrity in terms of wider ethical and political ends. The word "corruption" is powerful; like a curse, it leaps readily from the mouths of the aggrieved. But being precise about the term is less easy to do for it demands a fuller account of political health and integrity than is generally on offer. Modern political thought is haunted by the ghost of classical regime analysis, a form of inquiry that refused to consider city and soul in distinction from each other and refused to see civic integrity in terms divorced from an account of the good. An overarching argument of this book is that modern thought on corruption would do well to embrace the ambitious goals that classical political philosophy set for itself.