counts of corruption, 2

9 January 2009

Noonan, as I wrote below, decided not to attempt to compare levels of corruption across time and space. His explanation is worth quoting at length, as it gets into a lot of the problems surrounding attempts to quantify corruption. (Note that he describes the practice of indexing corruption to numbers of convictions as a “mistake.”)

What I have resisted is a temptation almost equally irresistible–to  quantify. Modern moral argument, not to mention sociology and criminology, depends heavily on quotable numbers. When the subject is bribery, an economic transaction, it seems that numbers should be available. Tourists and journalists are very free in judging that a society is “corrupt” or “very corrupt.” Historians and political scientists have not been far behind them. Surely, it may be supposed, the confident judgements that have often been made rest on a foundation of figures.

Quantification is conceivable. It has never been systematically attempted. There are no existing sets of figures by which one could conclude that the Roman Empire, for example, was more or less corrupt that the British Empire or the United States. In the absence of this kind of data it is wrong, I believe, to create an illusory certainty by using comparative terms.

Judgment about corruption in a society need not rest on a statistical basis. But with bribery several factors operate to make unquantified judgment difficult.

First,* the act is criminal and consensual; the victim where there is one is not made aware of the arrangement as it affects his case; consequently a number of acts of bribery remain secret and undiscovered.

Second, accusations of bribery are often politically motivated or are made in order to satisfy certain social or psychic needs; one cannot judge from the accusation along whether acts of bribery have actually occurred.

Third, the amount of legal attention bribery receives is misleading. One society may be uncensorious of most reciprocities with its officeholders; there may be no legal response to them a all, and the appearance will be given of integrity everywhere. A different society may define bribes, legislate against bribetakers, and prosecute bribery in such a way as to suggest that the crime is ubiquitous. A common mistake is to use the number of laws enacted or convictions obtained as an index of corruption.

Fourth, some critics have strong inclinations to exaggerate the corruption of their own day, and others have strong inclinations to denigrate past times or aliens or members of another race, religion, or class. Their criticisms will then be used as evidence that corruption is worse now or worse then, or worse with certain groups than others. Impassioned complaint will function as though it were hard evidence.

Fifth, there is the fallacy of the perfectly corrupt man–the belief that vices are linked and that unless a man is thoroughly corrupt in every aspect he can be no bribetaker or bribegiver. Moral judgment is held at bay by the kindly family man or illustrious genius who is also a taker or giver of bribes. Francis Bacon, Samuel Pepys, Warren Hastings are not merely respectable; they are heroes–respectively the founders, in the view of their admirers, of British science, the British navy, and British India. Bacon was a bribee by the law as actually enforced; Pepys a bribee by his own measure; Hastings a bribee by the law that was being made. Apologists by the score have hesitated to give their bribetaking its proper name. As for bribers, judgment has always been even more charitable, the underlying assumption being that they are the victims of extortion. When the persons involved have been preeminently just, judgment has often been entirely suspended. Who thinks of Thomas Becket or John Quincy Adams as giving bribes? The fallacy of the perfectly corrupt man prevents seeing bribery in transactions which, measured by at least one of the standards in use in their own time, were corrupt although executed by men of otherwise eminent virtue.

Finally, there is great difficulty in accepting a society’s own standards when one approaches the society as a traveler or as a historian. Bribes are a species of reciprocity. Human life is full of reciprocities. The particular reciprocities that count as bribes in particular cultures are distinguished by intentionality, form, and context. What is a bribe depends on the cultural treatment of the constituent elements. The observer outside the culture, like the cynic or rigorist within it, is inclined to see the conventional differences as arbitrary and to reduce all reciprocities of a given kind to bribes–to treat, say, any gift to an officeholder as a bribe. Doing so, the outsider imposes his own standard and reaches a judgment that is unreasonable if the culture’s own norms are used.

These major reasons for mistake–the rarity of proof of actual bribery; the abundance of accusations; the misleading impressions given by legal activity in its regard; prejudices of many kinds; the fallacy of the perfectly corrupt man; and the reductionism that eliminates conventions and looks only at function–mean that broad generalizations about the amount of bribery in a society must be made with caution and with caveats and without great confidence in their reliability.

_____

*I’ve broken items 1-4 on this list into separate paragraphs for easier reading.


counts of corruption, 1

8 January 2009

Back when the Blagojevich scandal broke in the news, there was a lot of discussion of which state is the most corrupt, no doubt prompted in part by the claim that

“If it [Illinois] isn’t the most corrupt state in the United States it’s certainly one hell of a competitor,” Robert Grant, head of the FBI’s Chicago office, said Tuesday.

USA Today looked into the comparison and came up with a surprising result (click through for a map):

On a per-capita basis, however, Illinois ranks 18th for the number of public corruption convictions the federal government has won from 1998 through 2007, according to a USA TODAY analysis of Department of Justice statistics.

Louisiana, Alaska and North Dakota all fared worse than the Land of Lincoln in that analysis.

Meanwhile, an earlier analysis by the Corporate Crime Reporter ranked Illinois sixth in federal corruption convictions on a per capita basis from 1997 to 2006, behind Louisiana, Mississippi, Kentucky, Alabama, and Ohio. (For the visually inclined, The Monkey Cage and its readers have you covered with a list, graph, and map.) If you’re wondering what happened to Alaska and North Dakota, Corporate Crime Reporter did not analyze the states with fewer than 2 million residents; only 35 states are included in the rankings.

Neither ranking includes state-level convictions. And of course they also leave out all those corrupt officials who were never convicted at all. As Russell Mokhiber, editor of the Corporate Crime Reporter, put it

Also, public officials in any given state can be corrupt to the core, and if a federal prosecutor doesn’t have the resources or the sheer political will to bring the case and win a conviction, the public corruption will not be reflected in the Justice Department’s data set.

(So there may be hope for Illinois yet!)

The flip side of this is that a relatively high conviction rate may be partly attributable to better detection, as the USA Today notes:

Don Morrison, executive director of the non-partisan North Dakota Center for the Public Good, said it may be that North Dakotans are better at rooting out corruption when it occurs.

“Being a sparsely populated state, people know each other,” he said. “We know our elected officials and so certainly to do what the governor of Illinois did is much more difficult here.”

Still, you have to have corruption first in order for it to be detected, and North Dakota’s prevention abilities don’t appear to be very strong:

Morrison said the state has encouraged bad government practices in some cases by weakening disclosure laws. North Dakota does not require legislative or statewide candidates to disclose their campaign expenses.

***

The uncertainty surrounding the detection and reporting of corruption is one of the reasons John Noonan does not provide comparative measures of corruption for the places and periods he discusses in Bribes. (Working across history, Noonan also lacks good data sets.) Since his discussion of quantification is quite lengthy, I’ve put it in the next post.


a history of bribery

4 January 2009

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.