• Bo Rothstein, University of Gothenburg

Three Things Matthew Stephenson Got Wrong

By Bo Rothstein, University of Gothenburg


Two weeks ago on his Global Anti-Corruption Blog, Matthew Stephenson raised a number of objections to my own recent post, “Three Reasons Anti-Corruption Programs Fail,” for CJL’s Corruption in Fragile States Blog. While I do not want to tax the reader’s attention with a similarly lengthy reply—Stephenson’s post was four times longer than mine—I do think it important to respond to three of Stephenson’s primary objections as I think his views miss crucial elements of my arguments, and that, moreover, our debate is important to the anti-corruption field.

1. The Principal-Agent Theory

Stephenson defends the Principal-Agent theory that has been used in a majority of anti-corruption policies while I criticize this theory as based on a serious misunderstanding of the basic nature of corruption. As I’ve written in a number of publications and in my recent blog post for this site, the Principal-Agent theory rests on three impossible assumptions: First, that a society plagued by systemic corruption is likely to “produce” an Honest Principal. Second, that corruption can be fixed if this (unlikely) Honest Principal can change the incentives for the corruptible agents. Third, that it is possible to be guided by a theory where the “type” that is supposed to solve the problem (the Honest Principal) is not supposed to exist according to the basic axioms of the theory. However, if the principal-agent theory is as good as Stephenson says, why have most anti-corruption programs based on this theory failed? Stephenson’s long comment lacks an answer to this important question. Instead, he prefers to defend what does not work.


2. Defining Corruption

Stephenson endorses the established definition of corruption (“abuse of entrusted power for private gain”) that I criticize. As I show in my book, this definition is “an empty signifier” because what should count as abuse is not defined. Stephenson admits that defining corruption as “abuse of entrusted power for private gain” lacks precision but argues that this isn’t a problem. He writes:

But in practice—as has also been well-known in the anticorruption community for decades—this definitional ambiguity doesn’t matter all that much, because there’s broad overlapping consensus, under all these various definitions, regarding the “core” corrupt acts (bribery, embezzlement, etc.). Surely the claim that the standard definition is “empty” flies in the face of such broad consensus on what the term means.

I need to make several points about Stephenson’s embrace of a definition that he claims is broadly accepted by those in the anti-corruption field and that he claims I have erroneously declared “empty.” First, there is absolutely no “broad overlapping consensus” about what should count as corruption. If there is, why then does renowned anti-corruption scholar Paul Heywood write the following in his introduction to the Routledge Handbook of Political Corruption? “There remains a striking lack of scholarly agreement over even the most basic questions about corruption. Amongst the core issues that continue to generate disputes are the very definition of ‘corruption’ as a concept.”


A serious problem with the imprecise definition Stephenson prefers is that it has invited a problematic cultural relativism into the anti-corruption agenda. And, moreover, this lack of precision opens the way for many actions that shouldn’t qualify as corrupt acts to risk being deemed so. For example, we entrust parents with the care of their children, but, sadly, there are parents who abuse their children. Is this to be seen as corruption? In addition, many parents have entrusted the education of their children to Catholic priests, an organization from which we now have tons of reports about child abuse. Most all of us would condemn these actions as child abuse; hardly anyone, though, would define such practices as corruption.


The standard definition of corruption—“abuse of entrusted power for private gain”—is also overly broad since it includes ordinary criminality such as theft. An employee stealing office supplies from her employer is engaging in theft, not corruption. However, if corruption is everything we dislike, it becomes a meaningless concept. When I was political science doctoral student in the late 1970s, “planning” was a central concept at my department until Aaron Wildavsky wrote his legendary article“If Planning is Everything, Maybe It’s Nothing.” I find it surprising that a legal scholar like Stephenson can be so lax about definitional precision. After all, if someone kills another person, American law differentiates between first-, second-, and third-degree murder, and between voluntary manslaughter and involuntary manslaughter. Since people are also literally “dying of corruption,” anti-corruption scholars should be equally concerned about conceptual precision.


3. Anti-Corruption Laws

Stephenson disagrees with my argument that the main problem for anti-corruption is not located in the laws but instead in what I call the “standard operating procedures” of societies and organizations. Here, let me be brief. Consider Italy, whose southern regions have far more severe corruption than its northern regions. Yet, Italy has had the same laws across its country for more than 150 years. Obviously, if the quality of its laws were the problem, there would not exist such huge differences in levels of corruption within one country.

"If the principal-agent theory is as good as Stephenson says, why have most anti-corruption programs based on this theory failed?"


Finally, at the risk of contributing to the “gratuitous academic blood-sport” that Stephenson rightly decries, I feel compelled to note that I took offense at his sometimes rather personal attacks. Criticism is a good and necessary thing, and I am certainly not above critique. Neither, though, am I immune to irritation when my work is treated without civility, as Stephenson has done. Normally, I do not communicate with or reply to colleagues who describe my research as “ridiculous,” or who imply that I have “nothing original or worthwhile to say” and that I harbor “unhealthy obsessions.” At my university, as well as at most European universities, this type of argumentation against another scholar is considered as a breach of our ethical codes. I am surprised that this demand for civility has not reached Harvard Law School.


About the Author:


Bo Rothstein holds the August Röhss Chair in Political Science at University of Gothenburg and is the co-founder of the Quality of Government (QoG) Institute at this department. During 2016 and 2017 he served as Professor of Government and Public Policy at University of Oxford. He has been a Visiting Scholar at the Russell Sage Foundation, Collegium Budapest for Advanced Study, Harvard University, University of Washington-Seattle, Cornell University, Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study, the Australian National University and Stanford University. He is a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, the Finnish Society of Arts and Letters and the Royal Society of Arts and Sciences in Gothenburg. Among his publications are Controlling Corruption - the Social Contract Approach, (Oxford University Press, March 2021), Making Sense of Corruption (together with Aiysha Varraich, Cambridge University Press 2017), The Quality of Government: Corruption, Inequality and Social Trust in International Perspective (University of Chicago Press 2011) and Social Traps and the Problem of Trust (Cambridge University Press 2005).