The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Defining Corruption

January 23, 2010

So the U.S. Supreme Court has decided that limits on direct corporate spending for political campaigns violate the First Amendment rights of corporations (hey, corporations are people too!). The New York Times has a good overview, plus links to the actual decision. Since I’ve done some work on corruption in the past, and regularly teach a seminar on Corruption and Global Governance, this decision has resonated with me and I can’t help being shaken up.

Let’s consider a commonsense definition of corruption: the abuse of public power for private gain, or the use of private means to shape public decisions so that they conform to narrow private or sectoral interests. The definition depends on our being able to draw a line between public good and private interest. The idea of corruption not only means that it is wrong for public officials to take bribes, but also more broadly that some things, like justice, should not be bought. If money becomes the primary determinant of public outcomes, public trust in governance, the rule of law, and the overall system of justice is corroded. But the primary focus of anti-corruption discourse emanating from the U.S. has been on corruption in the developing world. We consider ourselves to have the most advanced anti-corruption legislation in the world, thanks to the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which prohibits U.S. corporations from bribing foreign public officials. Equating corruption with flat out bribery allows us to ignore the bigger question of the role of money in politics, and especially of private, corporate money. By shaping global anti-corruption discourse to focus on bribery (see the OECD Convention on Bribery) we have managed to generate a relatively “clean” identity for the U.S. (though not entirely so, according to Transparency International’s rankings) and keep the focus on the developing world as the hotbed of corruption. While it would be silly to deny that corruption is a problem for development, the discursive maneuvers emanating from the U.S. prevent adequate reflection on the health of our own political system. The role of corporate money in the U.S. political system was of course already a concern before this latest Supreme Court decision, but even so, the blow that has now been dealt to campaign finance reform (a bipartisan issue, by the way) is staggering. And now we hear the word “corruption” being thrown around a great deal more than usual in discussions of the U.S. political process. So the silver lining may be an increased propensity to reflect on the corruption of our own system, not just on corruption as a problem for those under-developed Others.

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Mlada Bukovansky is Professor of Government at Smith College.Her research focuses on the evolving norms and institutions of the international system. Her current work focuses on international ethics and on the challenges to the liberal international order.