- Particularism’s Empire
In this bold and important book, Alina Mungiu-Pippidi seeks nothing less than to overturn received wisdom about what corruption is and how best to combat it. She disputes analyses that see corrupt acts as deviations from norms of integrity, arguing that in most cases—both in the past and today—corruption is instead “an intrinsic part of a certain governance context, a social allocation mode” (p. 19). This mode, which she calls particularism, is a historical and sociopolitical giant: It represents the dominant pattern of social organization in most countries today, and is the “natural state of affairs” in human history pretty much anywhere one looks (p. 24). Many anticorruption strategies fail because, unable to see or unwilling to admit this, they wrongheadedly insist on viewing corruption as an aberration rather than as something deeply woven into an enveloping social system.
Mungiu-Pippidi marshals evidence both quantitative and qualitative. She crunches numbers to reveal various aspects of corruption and governance around the world, and she tells the stories of countries (past and present) that have left pervasive corruption behind in order to discern how they did it. She also analyzes the anticorruption strategies that international actors have come to favor, especially in Eastern Europe. Often, she writes, such strategies have come to nothing. She stresses the vastness of the anticorruption task, seeing it as only part of a massive process of social, political, and normative transformation. She [End Page 172] urges international anticorruption experts to be modest and cautious. Yet hers is not a counsel of despair: Instead, she closes with a powerful plea for anticorruption programming that is realistic and tailored to fit the context in which it is supposed to be working.
Of course, this is not the first time that an expert has written of the intractability of corruption or its ability to infuse an entire political system. That intractability has long drawn attention from scholars and bred frustration among reformers. But in this book, Mungiu-Pippidi not only starkly confirms corruption’s stubbornness, she also explains it.
Through a convincing interrogation of multiple sources, she demonstrates that success in anticorruption efforts over the last two decades has been rare: The World Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indicators since 1996 tell us that “very few countries have managed to evolve in controlling corruption” (p. 51). Many of the anticorruption interventions that she describes have been of limited use if not downright counterproductive. She is especially dismissive of programs that seek to replicate, in countries where corruption is entrenched, the integrity-promoting institutions (anticorruption agencies, ombudsmen, and the like) that are common where corruption is rare. “The presence of an anticorruption agency,” she says while drawing on her own large-N study, is “even associated with a deterioration in the control of corruption” (p. 106).
Programs that make aid or other benefits conditional on the adoption of anticorruption measures have also fallen short. The enlarging EU required applicant states to carry out wide-ranging institutional reforms, but these were mostly fleeting, with some anticorruption arrangements “dismantled the day after EU accession” (p. 198). The book is filled with such sobering accounts of failure.
What explains this dispiriting record? Mungiu-Pippidi points to societies’ deep normative structures. She draws a sharp distinction between social orders that function on the basis of ethical universalism, “where equal treatment applies to everyone regardless of the group to which one belongs,” and societies suffused by particularism, “where individuals are treated differently according to particular ties or criteria” (p. 14). In this latter type of society, favoritism is “the main social allocation mode, with widespread use of connections of any kind, exchange of favors, and, in their absence, monetary inducements.” (p. 22). In such circumstances, corruption is the norm, or at least an alternative to other forms of particularistic advantage-wielding such as those based on status, clan, ethnicity, or party.
Overcoming corruption means moving from particularism to ethical universalism. In Mungiu-Pippidi’s assessment, only 35 of the world’s 190 or so countries have...