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  • Political CorruptionHistorical Conflict and the Rise of Standards
  • Michael Johnston (bio)

Sooner or later, citizens and scholars concerned about the prospects for sustainable democracy must come to terms with the problem of corruption. The two concepts are closely intertwined, posing fundamental questions about the accountability and limits of government, as well as about the legitimacy and limits of private influence over public policy. Sometimes corruption appears as an adaptive force, "humanizing" government and enabling citizens to influence policy. More often, corruption allows those with disproportionate money and access to protect and enhance their advantages. Regimes parlay "planned corruption" from above into short-term political advantage, sometimes at the expense of long-term public interests.1 In developing nations, the powerful may misappropriate vast sums, exporting capital to safe havens for personal use. At other times, corruption props up institutions and regimes that might otherwise be ready for needed changes.

Studying corruption is a tricky business: Definitions are controversial, and solid evidence is often elusive. Descriptive accounts may be clouded by self-serving equivocations. Equally subtle is the question of the significance of a corrupt act-not only its consequences, but also its meaning as perceived by citizens and officials alike. The frequency with which corruption sparks scandals and coups shows that this issue is often far from settled.

Make the analysis comparative, and things get even cloudier. Definitions suited to one place and time fit poorly in others. Legal and social norms, state and nation, are broadly congruent in some places and fundamentally at odds elsewhere. Even behavior widely regarded as [End Page 48] corrupt can vary in significance: nepotism, for example, may be viewed quite differently in societies with more or less extensive kinship obligations. The level of socioeconomic development may also affect the types and amount of corrupt behavior by shaping the balance between political and economic opportunities, the sources and depth of governmental legitimacy, and the pace of social change. Corrupt behavior can in turn influence development by helping or hindering the growth of parties or the assimilation of new groups, and by affecting the pace, direction, and distribution of economic growth.

Among the gravest problems confronting the comparative study of corruption is the question of whose standards to apply. Legal standards are relatively precise, but most reflect distinctly "modern" or "Western" values that may well be at odds with the realities of other societies. If we use cultural norms to identify corruption, we can claim legitimacy for our standards, but lose much precision and comparability. Furthermore, if we make popular approval (or tolerance) of a particular practice our test of corruption, do we then lose sight of more enduring questions of political morality?

Perhaps it would be better to use both legal and cultural standards, making an explicit issue of the differences between them. This perspective views corruption in the context of what Rogow and Lasswell call a society's "system of public order." That system includes both the dominant values of the society and its basic institutions-both the "realities" of behavior and the "formalities" of political structure.2 Systems of public order are not inevitable "end points" of development; they may include many "traditional" elements, and disruptive change can topple them.3

Corruption, then, may be defined as behavior seen as abusing-according to a society's legal or social standards-a public role or resource for private benefit. Seen in this way, corruption is a politically contested concept that gains its meaning in the course of basic developmental conflicts. These conflicts over the limits of official power and the legitimacy of private interests are also integral to the emergence of democratic politics, and continue in one form or another in advanced as well as developing societies. Understanding these conflicts not only lets us grasp the standards of political propriety at work in various nations; it also shows us how outwardly similar corrupt practices can differ in significance from nation to nation, and how scandals and revelations of corruption in developing nations might actually contain the seeds of new and more legitimate systems of public order.

The Origins of Public Order

Where does a system of public order come from? As a point...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-3214
Print ISSN
1045-5736
Pages
pp. 48-60
Launched on MUSE
2008-01-01
Open Access
No
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