Opinion Articles

How history can help us think about corruption and anticorruption

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Corruption is viewed today as one of the most serious and pressing issues facing governments and civil societies across the world. It is rightly deemed a major factor in the erosion of trust in the political class and the discrediting of financial institutions and institutional regulators. It is an important obstacle to economic efficiency and the application of the principle of equality before the law.

Yet, sixty or seventy years ago, when corruption first became an independent research subject, there were reasons to be hopeful. For most Western scholars writing about it in the 1950s and 60s, corruption was either a problem of the past or someone else’s problem. The prevailing view was that corruption was typical of traditional societies, where clientelism and patronage were dominant. Corruption in these societies, found mainly in the Southern Hemisphere, was thus a consequence of their failure to modernise and to adopt liberal democracy and develop a rational bureaucracy and a market economy. In the twenty years that followed, this interpretation of corruption was gradually replaced by a more economically-oriented and individualistic approach, according to which corruption was mainly the result of self-interested individuals trying to maximise their benefits by exploring the opportunities for misuse of public money created by large bureaucracies. The solution to this problem would be simply to ‘roll back the frontiers of the state’, liberalise the economy and create tough new laws targeting specific practices such as bribery. Legal and economic reform have since been regarded as imperative conditions for successful anticorruption policies. But in the 1990s corruption scholars and policy makers added three important new strings to their bow: good government, democratisation and social equality. This more comprehensive approach was accompanied by a certain fixation with determining the whys and wherefores of the historically ‘low’ corruption levels of countries such as Sweden, Denmark or the Netherlands. As the World Bank put it, with no trace of irony: how does one become Denmark?

Our purpose when we started looking at the problem of corruption across different historical periods and European regions was not exactly to answer that seemingly unanswerable question. As part of ANTICORRP, a much broader research project that includes specialists on a variety of fields, our goal was rather to explain how anticorruption practices changed across space and time, to bring out their diversity and continuity and to enhance our understanding of how modern Western governments developed in the way that they did. The assumption was that, far from being a purely modern ideal, the concept of “good government” existed at all times and mechanisms to fight what was understood to undermine good government – political or judicial corruption – went hand-in-hand with it. Combining in-house research at the University of Amsterdam with a variety of contributions from scholars invited to take part in a specialised conference held last September, we succeeded in putting together a vast overview of the history of anticorruption, from Classical Antiquity to the second half of the twentieth century, and in engaging both modernists and pre-modernists in a common reflection on the problem of corruption that is still taking place. The resulting book, currently awaiting publication, will have a strong scholarly focus on British, French, German, Dutch and Scandinavian history as well as novel contributions on less well-studied regions and historical periods, such as Ancient Greece and Rome, medieval and early modern Iberia and Italy, the medieval Middle East, the late Ottoman Empire and the Romanian Principalities from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries.

As the fruits of that collective effort, we would like to advance here a few elements for a more historically-informed understanding of corruption from which policy-makers may benefit.

Although universal definitions of corruption and anticorruption are helpful to identify corrupt practices and anticorruption measures in past times, anticorruption must be understood primarily within its specific sociopolitical and cultural circumstances. Since the usage and the meaning of corruption differ over time and across regions, a single definition of anticorruption is unhelpful. The history of anticorruption is often the history of how to deal with and restrain specific practices (bribery, nepotism, embezzlement and so on) and how to replace certain social and political dynamics (patronage and clientelism, for instance) with administrative structures that allow openly-recruited individuals to look after what is then collectively perceived as the public interest.

The fight against corruption is primarily a political question that has been used politically across history. Anticorruption campaigns, mechanisms and practices could be a response to specific corruption scandals and intense public discussion about corruption, but they could also be a reaction to acute political crises, the causes of which were not necessarily related to corruption. For example, profound inequality, political and economic oppression, a military debacle or simply a ruler’s need to consolidate his power by purging the administration and removing political rivals. Anticorruption has always been vulnerable to political manipulation. The opening up of politics to an increasingly broader section of the public seems to us to have marked a decisive and generally positive change in the way anticorruption policies were devised and carried out.

Periods of intense debate about corruption do not necessarily correspond to a rise in corrupt practices. Therefore, corruption is influenced by changing ideas as much as by the emergence of bad practices. Corruption as a real and perceived problem has had a great impact on the definition of official accountability and anticorruption policies. We, along with large groups of colleagues who have dedicated themselves to this topic in the past few years, argue that anticorruption is not only about the promulgation and enforcement of specific laws forbidding specific practices but also about trust in a system of governance and the political principles on which it is based.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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