a history of bribery

Aside from visualizing the criminal complaint against him a few weeks ago, I’ve been waiting to see what Rod Blagojevich is actually going to be indicted for before blogging about the case. But if the indictment is postponed, I’ll probably pick it up sooner rather than later.

Meanwhile, with corruption so much in the news, I’ve begun reading John Noonan’s history of the concept of bribery, appropriately entitled Bribes, parts of which I read a few years ago while researching 19th century corruption in graduate school. In pursuit of the idea, Noonan ranges from the ancient world, to medieval Europe, to early modern Britain, to the United States, to bribery on an international scale in the late 20th century (the book came out in the mid-1980s).

Is it really possible to follow a single concept of bribery through so many places and times? Noonan argues yes, provided the concept is properly abstracted:

The core concept of a bribe is an inducement improperly influencing the performance of a public function meant to be gratuitously exercised. The core turns out to be remarkably constant if its elements are taken with enough abstractness. The concrete constituent elements–what counts as “an inducement,” what counts as “improperly influencing,” what counts as “a public function,” what functions are “meant to be gratuitously exercised”–change with the culture. The concept of a bribe contracts or expands with conventions, laws, practices. Relativized, it does not disappear. The idea is used in postexilic Jerusalem, late Republican Rome, imperial Ravenna, seventh-century Yorkshire, thirteenth-century Paris, seventeenth-century London, eighteenth-century Calcutta, nineteenth-century Washington, twentieth-century Tokyo. Cross-culturally compared in these very varied settings, the abstract central concept–with no forcing of the evidence–recurs.

Noonan also provides a helpful framework for understanding the different standards of bribery that may prevail at any one time in a given context:

Bribery is a legal concept, hence the law determines what counts as bribery in a particular society. This is easy to say but legal definitions turn out to be only superficially helpful. Is the law the edict issued by the prince and the statute written on the books or is the law that which is actually enforced? If one takes the proclaimed rule as the measure, one chooses a standard that is often demonstrably unreal. If one answers that the law is that which is actually enforced, then one is led to ask: How many trials must take place before a law is enforced? Is prosecution enough for enforcement or must conviction follow? Is conviction enough or must serious punishment be imposed? Is there enforcement if only small offenders but not large ones are seriously sanctioned? Actual enforcement is not a clear and simple measure.

Probing the various meanings of any law on bribery leads to perception of a tension between it and the morals of any community. Typically, the morals in practice are less demanding than the law on the books and the morals in public expression are more exigent than the law enforced. Often a society has at least four definitions of a bribe–that of the more advanced moralists; that of the law as written; that of the law as in any degree enforced; that of common practice. If one is to say that an act of bribery has been committed, one should know which standard one is using. The great advantage of the concrete materials drawn on here–trials, confessions, letters, poems–is that one can see what bribery means in these contexts; one can conclude with some assurance as to which standard was in play and what a bribe meant for a particular prosecutor or poet, politician or publicist in a particular society.

This is particularly relevant to the Blagojevich case, where the “morals in public expression” were expressed quite literally in the form of the arrests and the ensuing press conference, while the standard of the law as enforced has yet to be determined. Additionally, I’ve seen the question come up in a number of places of whether there’s a meaningful distinction between what Blagojevich is alleged to have done and more conventional practices of deal-making or logrolling, with some arguing that both types of activities are a kind of bribery, and others arguing that there’s a real difference between trading support for public activities for support for other public activities and trading support for public activities for personal, private enrichment. I’m more in agreement with the latter group, but in any case the difference of opinion suggests that there are different standards in play here.

I’ll be posting more on Bribes as I work my way through the book.

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