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- Problems of Definition
- Types of Political Corruption
- Patterns of Corruption
- Arms Sales
- Illegal Sales of Alcohol, Illegal Gambling, Pornography, Prostitution, and Drugs
- Local Government Corruption
- Corruption Relating to Campaign Contributions
- Electoral Corruption
- Measures of Corruption
- Causes of Corruption
- Effects of Corruption
- Cures for Corruption
- Conclusion: Academic Studies Versus Practical Actions
The term corruption is used with reference not only to politics and to public administration but also to personal life and to business. It may refer to the perversion of any accepted standard. Common usage also includes the corruption of language, as with the corruption—that is, unauthorized alteration—of a written text. The first section of this research paper examines the main problems of defining the concept of corruption. A typology of political corruption and its patterns are discussed in the second and third sections; measures, explanations, effects, and possible cures for corruption are presented in the subsequent sections; and academic analyses versus practical actions is the final topic analyzed.
Problems of Definition
Moral corruption refers to the state of an individual or an entire society in which virtues have been lost and citizens have become depraved and ruined by the pursuit of luxury and gratification. For example, what were seen as corrupt practices within the Roman Catholic Church led to Protestantism. Also, the ideals of republican virtue and the warning lessons of the moral corruption that had led to the fall of the Roman Empire were much in the minds of the framers of the constitution of the United States.
In the business sphere, corruption is said to occur when a person betrays trust and misuses knowledge or authority for personal gain, for example, if a member of a firm’s staff sells trade secrets.
Political corruption involves the perversion of accepted standards of behavior in political life. In particular, it may be defined as the misuse of public office or authority for unauthorized private gain. Nevertheless, this and other definitions need to be treated with caution since the meaning of “political corruption” is itself a complex matter. The difficulty of finding a clear and agreed-on definition poses problems both for political scientists seeking to measure and compare corruption in different countries and for those responsible for drawing up anticorruption laws.
First, not all forms of misbehavior by those in positions of public trust constitute corruption. A politician who betrays secret information to an enemy country for ideological reasons is guilty of treachery but not corruption since he or she acts from an ideological motive and not for monetary gain. If that same politician reveals the secret information for payment, the action can then be characterized as corrupt as well as treacherous. Political corruption usually involves the pursuit of some form of personal gain, particularly material advantage.
Second, the mere fact that politicians or public officials derive material benefits from their positions does not automatically mean that they are corrupt. It is accepted that they are entitled to salaries and benefits for their work. It is only when they accept some unauthorized or illegal benefit that corruption is involved. However, it is not always clear which benefits a politician is or is not permitted to enjoy. For example, a major scandal in the United Kingdom (UK) ensued in 2009 from revelations about allowances used by a large number of members of parliament. In many of these cases, the parliamentarians had been permitted by the parliamentary authorities to make expense claims, which then were publicly condemned as unseemly when they were revealed. In only a few cases were the claims considered strictly illegal.
Third, and connected with the previous point, illegality is not the only criterion whereby an activity or payment may be judged to be corrupt. Especially during times of changes in public attitudes about expected standards of behavior of politicians, the law may itself be deemed to be corrupt. This is because some may see existing laws as contrary to what they feel are proper standards of morality and may wish, therefore, to alter the law.
Not only are expected standards of behavior subject to change, but also the expectations of the political class may differ from those of ordinary electors. In countries ruled by occupying or colonial authorities, there may be differences between the standards imposed by the authorities and the traditional standards within the society. Sometimes the clash of cultures is seen in the way officeholders treat members of their extended families or tribes. According to laws and rules drawn up by colonial governments or those enacted under pressure from international development aid agencies, politicians and officials must not show favoritism. By contrast, traditional social mores may oblige them to reserve jobs in the public service for their relatives. (Edward C. Banfield has referred to this traditional view as “amoral familism.” Apparently, this has been an aspect of politics in Sicily. In Albania, traditional familial obligations relating to honor killings and other matters are set out in the Kanun [canon] of Lek Dukagjin, a code dating from the 15th century. By using the term amoral, Banfield is reflecting a Western view of a local culture.)
Fourth, the term corruption often refers not only to misconduct by those already holding elective office but also to abuses relating to the electoral process whereby such office is won.
Fifth, though corruption is used primarily to mean the unsanctioned use of public office for personal gain, it may apply too when the intended gain is not strictly “personal” but for an official’s political party. For example, in a case in Philadelphia where lawyers paid bribes to obtain appointments as judges, the money went into the coffers of the ruling party and was not used for the direct financial benefit of the bribe takers.
If it is accepted that corruption is involved when the gain goes to a group (such as a political party) as well as to a politician or to the close family members of a politician, a further definitional problem arises. For it is a part of normal politics that politicians represent groups and not society as a whole. In a system where voters in a particular geographical area elect a legislator, it is expected that he or she then will try to represent their local interests. Gaining a material benefit for a locality is a normal aspect of pork-barrel politics; gaining a material benefit for a political party is a corrupt practice.
Sixth, corruption need not involve any favor by the bribe taker beyond a disclosure of unpublished information. Where the government is about to make an announcement that will affect the value of the shares of a company or sector of the stock market, prior notice enables favored persons to buy and sell shares to their advantage. Also, where a local government authority is about to make a decision about the route of a new road or rail line, a tip-off to party supporters will permit them to make property purchases or sales guaranteed to be to their advantage once the decision has been announced.
Seventh, in cases of bribery, does the corruption consist in the taking of a bribe or in the giving of an unauthorized favor in return for the bribe? If a judge accepts a bribe from a defendant but then finds the defendant guilty as charged, and the bribe did not affect the judge’s decision, is the judge guilty of corruption?
Eighth, one defining test for whether an act is or is not corrupt is transparency. Typically, unacceptable transactions must be conducted in secret. A judge who accepts a bribe will be foolish to boast about it. However, not all corrupt acts are secret. Some politicians are so powerful that they feel able to flaunt their privileges. The Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceauce§cu (1918-1989) felt so confident in his immunity from prosecution that he built huge palaces for himself.
Ninth, there are differences of usage between scholars as to whether “political” corruption includes the acts of civil servants and other public employees or whether it should be restricted to elected officials and those who owe their jobs to political influence.
Types of Political Corruption
It is convenient, in the first place, to categorize corruption by the position held by the corrupted person, as, for example, with the following:
- Legislative corruption
- Judicial corruption
- Police corruption
- Administrative corruption
- Corruption of local and national political executives (presidents, prime ministers, ministers, and mayors)
When there is corruption in obtaining office, it can be classified as
- Electoral corruption
A second categorization is by the type of action involved. According to the U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre group of development agencies, it is convenient to distinguish between corrupt actions by those already in power aimed at gaining unauthorized benefits (“corrupt accumulation and extraction”) and corrupt actions aimed at winning and retaining political office (“corrupt means of power preservation”). Corrupt accumulation and extraction includes the following:
- Bribes, “commissions,” and fees taken from private sector businesses
- Undue extraction through taxation and customs
- Fraud and economic crime
- Politically created rent-seeking opportunities
- Politically created market favors benefiting businesses owned by political elites
- Off-budget transfers and manipulated processes of privatization
- Extorting party and campaign funding from the state, private sector, and voters
Corrupt means of power preservation include actions such as the following:
- Buying political support and majorities from other parties and politicians
- Co-optation and maintenance of patron-client networks
- Buying decisions from parliament, judiciary, and control and oversight bodies
- Favoritism and patronage in allocation of government resources
- Buying voters and votes and electoral fraud
- Use of public money for political campaigns
- Buying off the media and civil society
A third categorization distinguishes between national (high-level) grand corruption and local (low-level or petty) corruption. Examples of petty corruption are small payments demanded by officials to avoid delays in processing requests for licenses, passports, and other routine documents (“speed money”) or small bribes demanded by traffic police or customs officials. Grand corruption or “kleptocracy” is the demand for huge payments (typically, from those seeking major government contracts) for top politicians.
Patterns of Corruption
Corruption not only takes many forms and exists in different parts of a political system, but it is usually clandestine and is thus hard to measure. Thus, any attempt to assess which countries are most affected and which parts of their political systems are especially corruption-prone is problematic.
The following activities frequently feature in corruption scandals in many countries.
Contracts for the purchase of guns, military aircraft, and other forms of defense equipment may involve sums of money amounting to billions of U.S. dollars. Because the competition for such contracts is so fierce and the stakes are so high for the providers of the equipment, massive bribes may be given to secure them. Some of the most spectacular corruption cases of recent decades have involved the arms trade. The Lockheed Scandal of the 1970s involved bribes by the United States aircraft company to the then Japanese Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka (who was sentenced to 4 years’ imprisonment but remained free on appeal at the time of his death in 1993); Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands; and to leading political figures in Italy, West Germany, and elsewhere. The Bofors scandal of the 1980s concerned bribes reportedly paid by the Swedish arms manufacturer to the Indian premier Rajiv Gandhi to win a contract for howitzer guns. The Al-Yamama deals involved contracts for military aircraft between the British manufacturer British Aerospace (BAE Systems) and Saudi Arabia. These occurred between 1985 and 2006. Following press and television reports of corrupt payments to members of the Saudi royal family, there was an inquiry by the U.K. Serious Fraud Office. However, this was dropped in December 2006 under pressure from the Saudi authorities. The U.K. attorney general announced that the investigation was being halted on national interest grounds. The Agusta-Dassault Scandal led in 1995 to the resignation of Belgium’s former foreign minister as secretary-general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and to his later conviction. Belgium’s former deputy premier was assassinated. The scandal involved the purchase of military helicopters by the Belgian army.
Illegal Sales of Alcohol, Illegal Gambling, Pornography, Prostitution, and Drugs
Attempts to ban forms of vice in which large numbers of people—including “decent” citizens— indulge have led regularly to the corruption of law enforcement authorities by gangs of organized criminals. To service an extensive clientele, vice activities need to be open or semiopen. If drug takers can find the illegal suppliers, so can members of the police. To safeguard their illegal activities, the organized gangs who control them have a strong incentive to bribe members of police vice squads. In addition, they need to ensure that politicians tolerate such bribery.
Characteristically, organized criminals, therefore, supply campaign contributions to potentially cooperative politicians.
Local Government Corruption
Decisions on zoning (whether land may be used for building purposes) greatly affect the value of land. Thus, bribery of local politicians who have the authority to make or to influence zoning decisions is common. It has been the subject of major ongoing scandals in Spain. (A similar scandal led in the 1970s to the resignation of the British deputy premier.) Another common form of local bribery concerns kickbacks on local government contracts. The tangentopolis (“bribe city”) scandal in Milan, Italy, which broke in the early 1990s, is a major example. A further common form of local government corruption is the assignment of jobs, housing benefits, and other forms of patronage as spoils to party activists. Such patronage politics was a defining feature of the “machine politics” in cities in the United States in the 19th century and in much of the 20th century.
Corruption Relating to Campaign Contributions
Political donations may be considered corrupt if
- they contravene existing political finance laws,
- they derive from the proceeds of a corrupt transaction,
- they involve the unauthorized use of state resources for partisan purposes,
- they are accepted in exchange for a promise of some unauthorized favor or contract,
- they are from disreputable sources (such as drug barons or other criminals), or
- the money is to be spent on illegal electoral practices such as vote buying.
There have been major scandals in recent years in Antigua and Barbuda, the Bahamas, Brazil, the Czech Republic, Croatia, Ecuador, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Spain, Suriname, South Korea, the UK, and Venezuela.
The stuffing of ballot boxes with fake votes, deliberate miscounting of votes (sometimes by officials who have received bribes), and vote buying are some of the most common forms of electoral corruption. Other corruption techniques include the inclusion of fake names on the voters’ register and personation (falsely pretending to be another voter). Such practices are potentially widespread in elections that are held in countries wracked by violence or in developing nations where it is almost impossible to draw up a reasonably accurate register of eligible electors. In advanced democracies too—the UK is an example—the phenomenon of electoral fraud is not unknown, especially in some urban areas with mobile populations.
Measures of Corruption
It is extremely hard to measure the overall extent of corruption within a locality or an entire country. A count of the number of legal cases may do nothing more than demonstrate the effectiveness (or lack of it) of law enforcement authorities or of the press in bringing attention to scandals. Moreover, cases may vary in importance, thus making a simple count of prosecutions misleading. Any attempt to compare levels of corruption in different countries runs up against the definitional problems already described: Behavior that is considered corrupt (or is actually illegal) may not be seen in the same way in other countries.
Especially since the 1990s, various anticorruption organizations therefore have used surveys or the subjective estimates of experts as surrogate measures of corruption or of indicators of corruption (such as the degree of transparency within a country). There is considerable competition between rival corruption indices. Transparency International promotes its Corruption Perceptions Index as well as a Bribe Payers’ Index and Global Corruption Barometer. The Opacity Index comes from the accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers. The Center for Public Integrity entered the field with a Public Integrity Index—one of the best indices in “State Capture,” developed by World Bank. A total of 20 measures of transparency are listed by Ann Bellver and Daniel Kaufmann of the World Bank in their August 2005 paper “Transparenting Transparency: Initial Empirics and Policy Applications.” In 2009, the Corruption Perceptions Index rated New Zealand as the least corrupt and Somalia as the most corrupt of the 180 countries studied.
One of the curious by-products of the rivalry between different anticorruption organizations is that Transparency International treats as strictly confidential the base data on which it bases its Corruption Perceptions Index. The value of these well-publicized metrics is open to question, especially since the results of information from country experts depend inevitably on the choice of experts. Moreover, there is a tendency to rely on the assessments of experts from economically advanced countries about the state of corruption in poorer countries.
Causes of Corruption
According to one view, corruption exists to evade governmental regulation. It follows that the less the regulation, the smaller the scope for corruption. Thus, socialist countries—such as the former Soviet Union—experienced an exceptionally high level of corruption as members of the power elite sought ways to evade egalitarian policies. Similarly, the prohibition of alcohol in the United States proved impractical. It merely produced widespread corruption and encouraged organized crime. This—some argue—is the inevitable consequence of laws to regulate widespread forms of private behavior.
There is an opposite view that capitalism, not socialism, encourages corruption. It is the essence of the capitalist ethic—according to this argument—that “greed is good.” Hence, companies will do everything they can to bend the rules if it is in the interest of making a larger profit. Large corporations are especially rapacious when it comes to dealings in foreign, less developed nations.
A third view, popular in the 1960s and 1970s, is that corruption is especially prevalent during periods of social and economic transition. Developmental theorists such as Arnold J. Heidenheimer posited that there is relatively little corruption in socially stable, traditional societies. When there is rapid industrialization and migration, the old norms are abandoned, and corruption flourishes. However, corruption then greatly declines (without the need for any anticorruption policies) with the coming of an affluent society in which middle-class respectability and suburban lifestyles predominate.
This theory now seems much less convincing than it was at the time Heidenheimer published his influential work in 1970. The Watergate scandal in the United States during 1972 to 1974 and the Poulson Affair in the UK at about the same time showed that the theory of middle-class civic virtue was overoptimistic.
Several other causes are sometimes suggested: lack of democracy, bad governance, low salaries for public officials, one-party rule in a locality, or lack of a free and active press. Such explanations either are too vague or they are (at least partly) defective and subject to notable exceptions. For example, Singapore is a country with low democratic credentials but with a well-regarded record in the field of anticorruption.
Effects of Corruption
In the 1960s and 1970s, influential writers such as Samuel Huntington, Nathaniel Leff, and Colin Leys argued against the “moralistic” view that corruption is necessarily damaging. In fact, corruption could oil the wheels of progress by enabling investors to find ways around restrictive rules. Especially in developing countries, corruption therefore was sometimes to be welcomed. This was the predominant view of Heidenheimer mentioned previously.
There was a sudden and massive change of opinion following a World Bank report in 1969 on corruption in Africa. From then onward, corruption came to be seen as a major evil and as an impediment to economic growth. The World Bank itself became active in promoting a campaign against corruption. Transparency International was founded in 1993 as a campaigning organization, partly by former officials of the World Bank.
The sweeping statements that have been made first about the virtues and then about the vices of corruption have tended to act as substitutes for open-minded studies of the effects of corruption. The problem of relating corruption and economic development is seen by comparing countries with high levels of corruption—such as South Korea and the Philippines. In the Philippines, economic growth has been low, but it has been very high in South Korea. This shows that the effects of corruption on economic growth are, at the very least, complex and serves as a warning against generalizations and moral exhortations.
Cures for Corruption
Many different cures for corruption have been suggested, though none of them has proved to be widely effective.
The proposals include:
- cutting the number of regulations and freeing markets;
- international anticorruption conventions, such as that of the United Nations, which came into force in 2005;
- national laws to outlaw international bribery, such as the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act of 1977;
- specialized anticorruption agencies such as Hong Kong’s Independent Commission Against Corruption;
- campaigns by nongovernmental organizations such as Transparency International;
- improved accounting procedures;
- improved procedures to ensure competitive bidding for public contracts;
- improved international efforts to combat organized crime;
- higher salaries for officials to reduce incentives for corruption;
- better training for law enforcement officials;
- ethical training for officials;
- reforms of libel and other press laws to enable journalists to expose and report corruption;
- aid conditionality—threatened or actual withdrawal of assistance to countries whose governments fail to implement anticorruption measures;
- measures to combat international money laundering; and
- reforms of laws relating to the funding of political parties and election campaigns to reduce the reliance of candidates and parties on large (and possibly corrupt) political donations.
Conclusion: Academic Studies Versus Practical Actions
In the past 20 years, international organizations, governmental agencies, and pressure groups have devoted major attention and large sums of money to the fight against corruption. This campaign has had a vital impact on the academic study of corruption. It has tended to divert attention from fundamental research into areas related to advocacy and to the recommendation of cures. Most of the corruption indices, which have become the vogue, provide pseudomeasurements. They may be of some practical value, but they are dangerous if treated with too much reverence.
- Banfield, E. C. (1958). The moral basis of a backward society. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.
- Heidenheimer, A. J. (Ed.). (1970). Political corruption: Readings in comparative analysis. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.
- Heidenheimer, A. J., & Johnston, M. (Eds.). (2002). Political corruption: A handbook. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.
- Kaufmann, D., & Bellver, A. (2005). Transparenting transparency: Initial empirics and policy applications. World Bank Policy Research Working Paper.
- Kotkin, S., & Sajo, A. (Eds.). (2002). Political corruption in transition: A sceptic’s handbook. Budapest, Hungary: Central European University Press.
- Pinto-Duschinsky, M. (2002). Financing politics: A global view. Journal of Democracy, 13(4), 69-86.
- Robinson, M. (Ed.). (1998). Corruption and development. Abingdon, UK: Frank Cass.
- U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre: http://www.u4.no/