Understanding "Corruption" Is An Important Step To Ending "Corruption"

(September 2019)

With the president facing the threat of impeachment in Washington and numerous public officials and power brokers confronting indictments and investigations in Philadelphia, "corruption" is a topic that is getting a lot of attention.  Those accused will have their day to answer to specific charges, but in the court of public opinion, we must be careful to not rely on an overly legalistic or singularly transactional understanding of the meaning of "corruption" when considering officials' behavior.  The idea that "corruption" can only be found in bribery/solicitation scenarios or explicit quid-pro-quo exchanges is a tremendously shallow understanding of the concept of "corruption" and one that will not help us fight corrupt activities at the local or national level.

Corruption is not limited to actions that violate the law.  Corruption involves a wide variety of actions that betray the public interest and deviate from acceptable norms.  In a political sector, corruption extends well beyond actions judged as legal or illegal to include the manner in which systems operate and the way decisions in political environments are made.  Just because an action is illegal, does not necessarily mean that it is corrupt.  Committing a crime is running afoul of the law, but corruption implies an intent, not to violate a statute, but to violate the public good and the public trust.  

Limiting a consideration of corruption to those (happily) rare instances where a public official ends up in prison, similarly promotes a poor understanding of the concept.  Just as many drivers break the speed limit, but relatively few are ticketed, many more corrupt actions occur than could ever result in prosecution.  Uncovering evidence in a proper manner to secure a conviction in a court of law itself presents a significant challenge.   But, even more fundamentally, just because an activity is not legally defined as "corrupt" or simply because an individual is not convicted of a "corrupt" act, does not imply that there is no corruption.  It is a truism that the absence of evidence of corruption is not evidence of the absence of corruption.

Elected officials who never accept illegal bribes, but use the power of their office to steer contracts to political contributors may never break a law, but are still acting in a corrupt manner.  A code-enforcement bureaucracy that aggressively cites property owners in only certain neighborhoods may not be acting illegally, but is still operating a corrupt system.  

Corruption occurs where discrimination is organized and methodical, where official decisions are made for the benefit of a ruling cabal without the input and consent of the governed, and where arbitrary judgments replace objective determinations.  Corruption is favoritism and cronyism and nepotism and every other bestowing of public benefits used to further a private-oriented purpose.  Corruption is officials enjoying private benefits at the public's expense; actions that use public authority to advance non-public purposes; practices that favor or harm a portion of the population through mechanisms that are apart from an official decision-making process; and systems that establish and administer public policies without meaningfully engaging or benefiting the public.  

Defined by law or in a more philosophical sense, corruption is malignant and destructive.  Corruption increases costs of doing business, which must ultimately be borne by citizens.  By wasting public resources, it prevents better uses that could improve public services.  By eroding public trust and undermining legitimate authority, corruption weakens public faith in government.  

Corruption imposes true tangible costs and many, many intangible impacts.  Those costs, in financial and human terms, are often very hard to quantify, but they are unquestionably real.  Corrupt systems do not operate efficiently or effectively.  Corrupt individuals are not fiscally responsible.  Public money is wasted and sound public policy is squandered to political considerations.  A ripple effect continues.  Understanding that the dice are loaded, many developers or contractors choose not to play the game and vie for public contracts or bid on public jobs.  This reduces competition and raises public costs, minimizes public benefits, and limits the number of options of quality.  In a system where the "fix is in," too many public-policy decisions are made based on political considerations.  This blunts the positive outcomes of even the most well-intentioned programs.  

These costs should be incredibly troubling to Philadelphians who must live with the consequences of life in a city that has been damned as a city with a culture of corruption.  Over the course of the last century, rules and laws have changed in important ways to eliminate many corrupt practices.  Reform movements have waxed, but always waned and Philadelphians have implicitly consented to living in a corrupted city.  Despite clear evidence that corruption continues to exist and contributes to the less-than-satisfying state of the city, anti-corruption movements have been largely ineffective over time in terms of eliminating a corrupt and contented culture.  Understanding that "corruption" exists even if envelopes of cash are not being slipped to public officials or quid-pro-quo transactions are never captured on surveillance video is an important first step toward working to make change for the better.