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August 20, 2010

what is corruption?

I'm about to write a chapter that hinges on the thesis that American politics is corrupt. Most Americans would agree, although their reasons and solutions vary (and, as shown by Transparency International's map, people feel worse about corruption in most other parts of the world). But what does "corruption" mean?

It cannot mean that the political system generates results you abhor, because that's the nature of politics (collective-decision making) on a large scale. Other people are going to choose to do things that you consider wasteful, murderous, immoral, treasonous. That doesn't mean the system is corrupt.

It cannot mean that the political system favors the wealthy. I am an economic populist, but I agree with Charles Lindblom's theory of the "privileged position of business." Prosperity is a popular public good. In order to promote prosperity, we have to make discretionary investors happy. Discretionary investors are rich. So governments try to make rich people and governments happy. That by itself is not corrupt.

It cannot mean that political institutions do not live up to their express or original principles, because sometimes those principles are abhorrent and we welcome their abrogation. And sometimes institutions try to honor good principles but simply fail.

It cannot mean that leaders act on bad motives. Yes, there are good and bad motives, and we can recognize them in others--or else the whole idea of proving intent in a law court is a farce. But the intent of political leaders is a problematic issue. It's hard to discern their true motives because we observe them at a distance, mediated by various untrustworthy sources. Besides, politicians can do great things for selfish motives (such as their own re-election) and horrible things with good motives.

It cannot mean simply the exchange of official decisions for illegal payments, because people have used the concept of corruption more broadly for at least 25 centuries. Bribes are corrupt because they are examples of something more general.

So I don't think corruption is any of these things at once, but it might be some combination of them. Unfortunately, a combination is what we observe every day.

August 20, 2010 4:05 PM | category: none



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