bottom-up struggles against corruption: a frontier of democracy

(En route to Storrs, CT) Corruption is no minor issue, nor is it mainly a concern for fastidious bourgeois reformers in rich countries. Consider, just for instance, that one quarter of India’s teachers are missing from school on any given day but are still being paid. Few investments in the world benefit human beings more than educating Indian children, yet a quarter of the available teacher/time is being lost because of that one form of corruption–not to mention  bribery in school construction, college admissions, and hiring, from primary schools to graduate programs.

In countries like Ukraine, which I visited briefly this summer, corruption is a primary obstacle not only to economic development but also to fairness, good government, and reconciliation. And here in the United States, perfectly legal transactions–ones that politicians even brag about, such as collecting private money for judicial elections–easily meet my definition of “corrupt.”

It seems surprisingly hard to find trends in levels of corruption over time, so that we would be able to see which anti-corruption strategies are effective. Experimental programs are often evaluated, but even when they work, they are typically too small to make a difference at the scale of a nation. It is not clear that a true victory over corruption would come from assembling lots of specific programs, such as websites that disclose government contracts or increased pay for bureaucrats. By the way, a major reason for the lack of trendlines is the difficulty of measuring corruption even at a given moment–in part because corrupt acts are typically secret.

I start with the assumption that there are two basic categories of human problems: sometimes we want or value the wrong things; and sometimes, even though we want good things, we can’t get them because of the ways we interact. Corruption may involve both  categories.

Corruption is a problem of what we want or value to the extent that people do not distinguish properly between legitimate transactions and illegitimate ones, or between public and private interests. Following Zephyr Teachout, I think that the US Supreme Court’s decisions regarding lobbying reveal the degeneration of fundamental republican virtues in this country. In 1870, confronted with a situation involving a paid lobbyist for an economic interest, the Court assumed that his job must be “steeped in corruption” and “infamous” and proposed that if such “instances were numerous, open, and tolerated, they would be regarded as measuring the decay of the public morals and the degeneracy of the times.” The Court voided the lobbyist’s contract. By Citizens United v. FEC (2010), the Court was no longer able to detect any difference between a citizen speaking up in a republic and a donor pursuing an economic interest for money.

On the other hand, it has been possible to forge such distinctions. In 1621, Sir Francis Bacon was impeached for acts that had been widespread and unchallenged a few years earlier. Elizabethan judges had openly accepted payments from litigants, and ambassadors had received huge cash gifts from the monarchs of their host countries. Bacon was made a scapegoat and brought down by his political enemies. But it was also true that a new concept of public offices and of public versus private goods was emerging, and it ultimately served Britain well. That is an example of a positive shift in values.

More generally, corruption is a failure to value the commons: that which we own collectively or which is not owned at all. The commons is not an idea for leftists alone, for even radical libertarians view the government and the law as public property and the atmosphere and oceans as un-owned. Attitudes toward the commons vary, and I suspect that a valuable way to reduce corruption is to raise people’s sense of concern for the various commons around them.

But corruption also exemplifies a collective-action problem. If everyone else is paying bribes, you won’t make the system any better by refraining, but you may hurt yourself (or your children, or your employees). So even when everyone thinks that bribery is bad and the commons is precious, almost everyone may still pay bribes.

One type of solution to collective action problems is an external monitor/enforcer that protects the common interest. Singapore has “gone from being one of the more corrupt countries on the planet to one of the least.” Its success depends upon an authoritarian state that happens to be genuinely opposed to financial corruption. I wouldn’t want to generalize the Singapore example, for two reasons: an authoritarian solution denies people the right to govern themselves, and benign authoritarians are strikingly scarce. Most dictators who jail or shoot people for taking bribes are perfectly happy to accept bribes themselves. In fact, by investigating corruption, a state learns who is corrupt and can use selective prosecution or the threat of it to extract additional benefits. That temptation dooms almost all top-down solutions.

A different type of response to collective action problems is a movement from the bottom up. For instance, people can make mutual pledges not to give bribes and can hold each other accountable. They can also vote en masse for anti-corruption candidates. I am convinced that making government information transparent is valuable just to the degree that people organize themselves to use the data effectively and constructively; on its own, transparency accomplishes nothing.

Bottom-up efforts are difficult: it is always easy to cheat, to lose momentum, or to encounter disabling divisions within a popular movement. But I think that if popular movements are worth anything in the 21st century, they must take on corruption. And unless corruption is addressed from the bottom-up, it will continue to block social justice around the world.