Tired Language and Ineffective Reforms
By Michael Johnston, Colgate University (Emeritus)
They are familiar words, ones we encounter in any anti-corruption debate. They are weighty, important-sounding words that we use because we hear others use them, and that we like because they make us sound like what Paul Krugman calls Very Serious People. These words came into use to describe important problems and ideas, but when we use them in casual and uncritical ways they can obscure more than they reveal. Too often they amount to the conceptual equivalent of spackle, superficially filling holes and covering up cracks in our arguments without adding real substance. They appear to answer questions that we haven’t taken time to frame with precision. And they waste resources and opportunities.
You know these words. If you’re like me you’ve used them often, in a variety of contexts, over the years. And if you’re like me you’ve been wondering why, after more than three decades of research and on-the-ground effort—much of it in challenging and even dangerous settings—we have so few success stories to tell, and why so much anti-corruption discussion seems to take place in an echo chamber.
Given the stakes of the battle and the massive effort and risks it requires, why focus on words as a major problem? One answer has to do with the ways stale language—notably, our tendency to use words frequently because they are frequently used—can reflect stagnant concepts and thinking. Worse yet, what was once a critical, change-oriented anti-corruption movement has hardened into a large, well-resourced, morally entrenched and often-hegemonic anti-corruption industry. Repeating the lingo is one way to demonstrate—and embellish—our own standing within that establishment. But if our thinking is not evolving, and if we are not out to disrupt the governance status quo (rather than to redeem it while remaining embedded within it), in what ways do we imagine we are fighting corruption?
Here are some of my nominees (your list will likely differ):
Stakeholders: An important-sounding word that covers a lot of people and groups—but, who are they, and what “stakes” do they “hold” that are relevant to corruption control? How do stakeholders differ, and how—if at all—do the answers to such questions help us understand responses (or lack of them) to anti-corruption appeals? Does a word like “stakeholders” divert our attention from possible allies who do not neatly fit our image of corruption fighters, even though their interests and agendas may partially overlap with ours?
"Power without accountability is a recipe for corruption with impunity. But how can we hold the wealthy and powerful accountable? Making more rules, by itself, or trying to enforce accountability from the top downward, is not enough."
Civil Society: Many “stakeholders” are parts of civil society—but are we talking about farmers, shopkeepers, women, students, professionals, clerics, journalists…? When we speak of civil society are we thinking only of specific organizations, or should we include more informal networks and leadership? Do we restrict civil society to groups directly concerned with corruption, or do we include all sorts of other groups whose leaders and networks might help out, and whose strength and legitimacy we can borrow, even if they primarily pursue other goals?
Transparency: Transparency is a fine thing in many ways, but is it useful as a blanket term for corruption control? As James D’Angelo and colleagues point out, transparency regarding political contributions and public roll-call votes by legislators helps big spenders advertise their clout and ride herd on the recipients of their money. Transparency regarding small individual contributors to unpopular campaigns or causes, Richard Briffault argues, can expose them to social pressure or danger. Transparency is a worthy means to many reform ends but, as Bruce Cain reminds us, by itself it is not enough: somebody must have incentives and the ability to put information to effective use.
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Grand and Petty Corruption: The grand-vs.-petty corruption distinction invokes a sense of realism and seems to raise core issues in reform. But what makes grand corruption “grand,” and is it necessarily more important than what’s “petty”? The latter, after all, often helps keep poor people poor and vulnerable, a fact—and a factor weakening support for reform—that should be one of our central concerns. Tunisia’s national upheaval in 2011, for example, was touched off by police harassment of a young stallholder in an open market, but those abuses were symptomatic of impunity reaching well up the police hierarchy and into the regime leadership. Was that petty or grand corruption? What specific contrasts do those terms highlight, and what analytical work do they do for us?
"If we continue to depict corruption control primarily as a public good, people are unlikely to demand accountability in sustained ways or respond definitively when they do not get it."
Level Playing Field: We’re all for level playing fields, but would we know one if we saw it? Democracy, markets, and social processes of all sorts produce unequal outcomes; is corruption necessarily at work, or is it just the nature of decisions that confer advantages on some but not others? Do we seek equality or equity, in what balance, and how does corruption threaten those outcomes in specific settings? If corruption were sharply reduced, how much more “level” would the field, and outcomes, really be? What transpires on a level playing field could just be more institutional corruption—activities that may break no laws, yet are widely regarded as corrupting and strikingly unfair.
Metrics: Everyone—particularly social scientists like me—loves numbers, and these days indices and indicators abound. But do “metrics” necessarily measure anything at all? Are they aggregated at realistic levels: what, for example, does it really mean to think of corruption as a whole-country trait? Metrics and indices can be immensely valuable when they tell us a story illuminating real problems or relationships, but at what point are we just dicing and splicing numbers for their own sake? When we combine indicators to create more indicators, is that insightful analysis—or sausage-making? Not only do constructing and disseminating such metrics consume significant resources; they can divert our attention from actual corruption problems toward just chasing the numbers—numbers that may not even track the effects of reforms.
"Why focus on words as a major problem? One answer has to do with the ways stale language—notably, our tendency to use words frequently because they are frequently used—can reflect stagnant concepts and thinking. Worse yet, what was once a critical, change-oriented anti-corruption movement has hardened into a large, well-resourced, morally entrenched and often-hegemonic anti-corruption industry."
Political Will: Few would doubt that reforms benefit from sustained political support, not only from the top but also from society as a whole. But “will” is a matter of intentions and dispositions, unknowable at any given time. After the fact, we might conclude that such backing (or its absence) was decisive, but are such answers always clear? Extensively corrupt societies have no shortage of political will, but it is often self-serving and unchecked. Willful pursuit of bad ideas will not help; high-flown declarations of commitment to symbolic measures may look like “political will” but accomplish little. We may even be blaming the victims (“we gave Country X all the right ideas, but it just lacked political will…”). In any event, Lee Kwan Yew has left the building. In full-scale societies, can anyone transform politics and power by sheer will—and is that really a situation we want to encourage? Or should we focus, wherever possible, on building anti-corruption strength upon the values, expectations, and demands of citizens?
Accountability: Power without accountability is a recipe for corruption with impunity. But how can we hold the wealthy and powerful accountable? Making more rules, by itself, or trying to enforce accountability from the top downward, is not enough. Indeed, the latter may only make matters worse by making top figures the judges of their own cases. Genuine accountability requires a relationship—being held accountable to someone else—and involves much more than just publishing information. That “someone else”—voters, judges, good-government groups— must be able to impose real costs or provide support in ways that cannot be ignored.
In that respect the “stakeholders” notion might hold some promise if we apply it carefully, and if stakeholders can affect the costs and benefits of an activity, rather than just being consulted while reforms are being proposed. But their own wellbeing, the quality of their local services and facilities, and the respect they are entitled to receive from officials must be among the stakes they hold.
If we continue to depict corruption control primarily as a public good, people are unlikely to demand accountability in sustained ways or respond definitively when they do not get it. Finally, those citizens must feel safe enough to join the struggle—which means that real accountability involves addressing the imbalances of power that enable corruption in the first place.
Zero Tolerance: OK, I get it: no high-level official wants to stand up and say, “We are only going to tolerate a little teeny bit of corruption.” Proclaiming “zero tolerance” sounds decisive, seemingly promising a break with the past. But zero corruption, as I’ve written for this blog, has never been attained and never will be. Mostly, such proclamations suggest that the speaker lacks any clear idea of what limiting corruption might actually entail. In the end, you may well announce zero tolerance, but nobody—least of all those engaged in corruption—will actually believe it. Meanwhile, opportunities and support for reform may well be wasted.
So what then? My point is not that these words or others like them must henceforth be banned. That would be another futile attempt at zero tolerance—and as noted, many of the ideas and challenges underlying such language are of critical importance. Moreover, we are unlikely to benefit from creating a whole range of new words and terms, only to see them too eventually drained of meaning. But we should choose and use our words with their deeper implications clearly in mind. They are much more useful for flagging major questions than as stand-ins for answers. After all, the cases and challenges we confront in fighting corruption present us with a tremendous range of problems and variations—contrasts that one-size-fits-all language and thinking cannot help us comprehend.
Michael Johnston (Ph. D. Yale University, 1977) is the Charles A. Dana Professor of Political Science Emeritus at Colgate University. From January 2017 through May 2019, he was a Distinguished Professor at the International Anti-Corruption Academy in Laxenburg, Austria. His most recent book, The Conundrum of Corruption: Reform for Social Justice (co-author Scott A. Fritzen), was published by Routledge in December, 2020. Transitions to Good Governance (Edward Elgar; co-edited with Alina Mungiu-Pippidi) appeared in 2017. Syndromes of Corruption: Wealth, Power, and Democracy (Cambridge University Press, 2005) won the 2009 Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order, presented by the University of Louisville. He has served as a consultant to numerous international organizations, and between 2009 and 2014 was involved in long-term reform efforts in the Philippines. In recent years he has prepared a review of issues in measuring corruption and governance for the World Bank, developed an analysis of connections between corruption and political instability for a US Government agency, and presented a lecture and chaired a panel discussion at the OECD in Paris. In 2016 he was a member of a team organized by the University of Southern California that conducted a mid-term evaluation of the Open Government Partnership. Current projects include helping develop typologies of corruption risks for the Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency of the World Bank. He lives in suburban Austin, Texas, with his wife, Betsy, who will likely re-introduce cats to the household within the coming year. How long they will let us continue to live in their house remains to be seen.