The concept of corruption
(Opening for a draft paper)
Corruption is a matter of “dishonest or illegal behavior especially by powerful people,” including, for instance, government officials or the police; and primary examples of corrupt behavior are bribery and any other inducement by improper or unlawful means.1 The varying forms and expressions of corruption may, in fact, form an unending list, since new, more sophisticated, subtle or covert forms are pretty sure to arise. The more corruption is exposed at any given time and place, the more subtle and covert it tends to become. Partly in consequence, attempts at definition and demarcation of corruption vary and are often problematic or incomplete; “the class of corrupt actions comprise an extremely diverse array of types of moral and legal offences undertaken in a wide variety of institutional contexts including, but by no means restricted to, political and economic institutions.”2
As Lincoln Steffens put a similar point, directly concerned with Gilded Age corruption in St. Louis, Missouri, one had to fear that, “… the exposures by Mr. Folk will result only in the perfection of the corrupt system.”
For the corrupt can learn a lesson when the good citizens cannot. The Tweed regime in New York taught Tammany to organize its boodle business; the police exposure taught it to improve its method of collecting blackmail. And both now are almost perfect and safe. The rascals of St. Louis will learn in like manner; they will concentrate the control of their bribery system, excluding from the profit-sharing the great mass of weak rascals, and carrying on the business as a business in the interest of a trustworthy few.3
In the wake of exposures of corruption in the press, indictments and convictions due to the work of St. Louis public prosecutor Joseph W. Folk, if the good citizens of the city would not or could not take things in hand, then corruption could simply mutate into some as yet unexposed or covert forms. As a general matter, though, in spite of the tendency toward subtler and more sophisticated forms, the old familiar patterns are always being rediscovered and deployed somewhere or other; they never completely die away.
The etymological source of the English word “corruption” is theological Latin,4 which followed traditions of translating ancient Greek moral and political thought. This background is reflected both in the call on moral standards involved in the condemnation and prosecution of corruption and in the broader usages of the word. Corruption, in a secondary sense, is a matter of departure or deviation from an original, or from what is pure, ideal or correct, as in “corruption of a text,” and “corruption of computer files”—where no moral evaluation need be involved. In their original Greek setting, Aristotle’s three “degenerate,” “digressive” or “perverted” (παρεκβάσείς, parekbasis) forms of government, viz., tyranny, oligarchy and (extreme) democracy, are regarded as degenerate precisely because they deviate or “swerve” from proper concern with the common good. They might therefore equally be said to be corrupt forms. As political scientist Samuel Huntington makes a narrower point, “Corruption is behavior of public officials which deviates from accepted norms in order to serve private ends.”5 But not all corruption is political.
1. Cf. “Corruption” in Merriam-Webster.
2. Seumas Miller 2018, “Corruption” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. p. 6.
3. Lincoln Steffens 1904, The Shame of the Cities, H.G. Callaway ed. 2020, p. 39.
4. Theological Latin is mentioned in the great Oxford English Dictionary. In consequence of the Latin source, one finds cognate forms in many European languages: English, corruption, French, corruption, German, Korruption, Italian, corruzione, and Russian, korruptsiya. The English “corrupt” derives from Latin, corrumpere = co- + rumpere, “to break.”
5. Cf. Samuel P. Huntington 1968, “Modernization and Corruption” in Huntington 2006, Political Order in Changing Societies, p. 59.
In spite of our understandable and frequent focus on monetary exchanges involving government officials and favors, corruption need not involve exchange of money and may be either public or private. Public officials accepting envelopes stuffed with cash to favor bribe-givers in the exercise of official powers is perhaps the central, paradigm case of political corruption. Yet, surely, corruption may still exist where no money changes hands. Favoritism toward particular persons, groups or interests might be exchanged for other sorts of “inducements,” for instance, reciprocating preferences in hiring, employment advantages or promotions; and favoritism may involve exchange of useful “insider” information.6 “In some corrupt exchanges, such as patronage and nepotism” argues political scientist Michael Johnston, “considerable time may elapse between receiving the quid and repaying the quo, and the exchange may be conditioned by many factors other than immediate gain.”7
When illicit favoritism is practiced within a particular insider group involving partiality in dispensing jobs, opportunities and other advantages to friends, supporters or trusted associates, this favoritism is called cronyism. Favoritism and partiality toward one’s own family and kinship, nepotism, is illegal in American Civil Service employment practices, and restricted by the requirement to report possible conflicts of interest to stockholders in publicly traded firms. The charge of nepotism fails of legal application in privately owned firms. It is worth remarking, however, that the distinction between “public” and “private” agents and resources is not always entirely clear and straightforward.
The point is reflected in the history of corporate charters. For example, the British East India Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company long effectively ruled large areas of India and Canada respectively. Were these private trading corporations or colonial sub-polities of the British crown and government? Being both, of course, they could legally govern their respective geographic domains with priority and preference given to their own economic and trading interests and profits. The East India Company even had its own army which was effectively deployed in the Seven Years’ war (1756-1763).8 Chartered trading companies acting as sub-polities was a compromising configuration, though it long persisted. Again, while colonial Americans saw their chartered colonial governments as their own, requiring their representation and subject to “the consent of the governed,” the view from London was that they could be modified or abolished by parliament like any corporate or municipal charter in the kingdom.
Lincoln Steffens distinguished several classifications of municipal corruption. This is partly a matter of where to look for corruption. His typology includes police corruption which was especially prominent in the scandals of Minneapolis, and also found elsewhere, for instance, as reported in the Lexow Committee’s exposures of police corruption in New York City. Police corruption involves “protection” of and extortion from illegal but tolerated gambling and vices. Steffens sometimes found municipal corruption, centered in the mayor’s office, the executive and administrative departments and sometimes centered in the municipal legislatures. With corruption centered in City Council, the political bosses could often afford to tolerate a “clean hands” mayor. Steffens also describes financial corruption, for example in St. Louis, which involved “not thieves, gamblers, and common women, but influential citizens, capitalists, and great corporations.”9 Political bosses of the Gilded Age often enjoyed quite cozy relations to large financial and industrial firms or even owned banks themselves. Generalized civic corruption, exemplified by Philadelphia, “corrupt and contented,” involved direct ...
6. Cf. Sung Hui Kim 2014, “Insider Trading as Private Corruption,” UCLA Law Review, Vol. 61, pp. 928-1008: “Private corruption” is defined as “the use of an entrusted position for self-regarding gain.”
7. Michael Johnston 2005, Syndromes of Corruption, p. 21.
8. Relevant in comparison is the literature of Edmund Burke’s later speeches and documentation in the long impeachment process against Warren Hastings (1732-1818), the East India Company’s Governor of Bengal. See, e.g., Isaac Kramnick ed. 1999, The Portable Edmund Burke, Section V. “India and Colonialism,” pp. 363-406; Frederick G. Whelan 2012, “Burke on India.”
9. Steffens 1904, Shame of the Cities, H.G. Callaway ed. 2020, p. 71.
partisan manipulation of the electoral system and vote counts, integration of political patronage, federal, state and local, with favored business interests plus institutional and popular acquiescence in boss led, machine politics. Even people not directly involved in corruption, still prevalently “went along,” and adopted protective affiliation and coloring of the dominant party in order not to fall into
direct opposition to the party bosses and the machinations of the corrupt system. Even “heads of great educational and charity institutions ‘go along,’ as they say in Pennsylvania, in order to get appropriations for their institutions from the State and land from the city.”10
Though acceptance of bribes among political office holders is the paradigm, corruption also exists in other institutional contexts. For example, embezzlement by a business partner or favoritism in the allocation of funds by a corporate treasurer show the possibility of corruption in private spheres; and “insider trading” of stocks and bonds on the basis of privileged information is criminal in many or most important jurisdictions. Bribery may exist even in “non-profit” sports organizations, influencing the outcome of games or the award of sports events to particular localities. “Corruption involves the abuse of a trust,” writes Michael Johnston, “generally one involving public power, for private benefit.”11 But the involvement of public power and public financing may be more or less remote, unobvious or even absent. The fundamental objection to corruption is moral, whether or not particular forms of corruption are also legally prohibited—though not every moral failure counts as corruption. Corrupt actions are those that disrupt or strongly tend to disrupt moral habits of good character and/or the practices constitutive of the normative and governing purposes of institutions.
Structures favorable to “economic elite domination”12 may be public, semi-public or private. But in any case of corrupt, domination over public or private interests, there will likely and typically be some “ring,” “combine,” “boodle gang,” syndicate or circle (however tightly organized or tacit and diffuse) of self-serving insiders who ignore or discount the common, public interest or the overt, declared and approved purposes of semi-public or private organizations. More generally, “The pattern of corruption … exists whenever a power-holder who is charged with doing certain things, … is by monetary or other rewards, such as the expectation of a job in the future, induced to take actions which favor whoever provides the reward and thereby damages the group or organization to which the functionary belongs, … .”13
Although legal definitions enter into our concept of corruption, the concept is basically moral and normative. “No man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause,” wrote James Madison in Federalist Papers, No. 10, “because his interest would certainly bias his judgment, and, not improbably, corrupt his integrity.”14 The law, a judge and jury are there to see to it that no one is the judge in his own legal case; and we need to be morally concerned with anyone being the judge in a moral conflict of interests to which the same person is also a party. This has a corrupting effect on personal integrity.15 Some degree of cognitive or emotional bias seems to come with the limits of human intelligence and moral sympathy, but persistent, conscious habits and policies based on acceptance or acquiescence in insider bias and favoritism contribute to corruption of every sort.
10. Steffens 1904, Shame of the Cities, H.G. Callaway ed. 2020, p. 141; 141n. The contemporary colloquial phrase in Philadelphia, often critical, is “to go along in order to get along”: a matter of acquiescence.
11. Michael Johnston 2005, Syndromes of Corruption, p. 11.
12. See Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page 2014, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens,” on usage of this term.
13. Cf. Carl J. Friedrich 1972, “Corruption Concepts in Historical Perspective,” in Friedrich 1972, The Pathologies of Politics, pp. 127ff:
14. James Madison 1787/1937, in The Federalist Papers, No. 10, p. 56.
15. Cf. Zephyr Teachout 2014, Corruption in America, p. 9, Giving a sufficient condition: “a person is corrupt when they use public power for their own ends, disregarding others.”