Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Anti- Anti-corruption -- Part I

Michael W. Dowdle

    (Note:  A couple of months ago, I gave a presentation at the Centre for Transnational Legal Studies that involved, among other things, a critique of the anti-corruption movement.  Because Mariana Prado was going to be in attendance, I wrote out in advance for her what my critique would consist of, so that she could provide a rebuttal should see so wish.  She has since suggested I post the critique to this blog. The critique is in two parts.  In this part, I suggest what motivations really underlie the discourse of anti-corruption.  In the next part, I explore the practical problems that this discourse seems to engender.)

 * * * 

 Corruption holds a magical place in the field of law and development.  It is the go-to as to why developing countries do not in fact develop.  After all, we know what it takes to develop (i.e., good legal institutions), so why is it that developing countries do not develop?  It can only be because their leaders and elites must be putting their own personal interests ahead of those of real development. 

 In fact, these is little hard empirical support for this, least as best as I can find.  There are a lot of studies showing an inverse correlation between levels of development and levels of corruption.  But correlation does not show causation.  And in fact, high levels of corruption are also associated with the fast industrial development, as indicated in the contemporary cases of China, Brazil, India, Indonesia, and in earlier cases of the United States ca. 1880s and early industrial England ca. 1790s.

I think the reason this trope survives unchallenged is because it serves three important psychological purposes insofar as the Western considerations of development are concerned.  First, it allow us to preserve our faith in our own political-economic ideology – providing a convenient explanation as to why that ideology in fact rarely – if ever – is able to do what it claims to do insofar as economic development is concerned. 

Second, it allows us in the West to celebrate our own special dedication to moral principles.  “Lookee here,” it says, “the reason that developing countries don’t develop is because of moral hazard.  We, by contrast have developed, meaning that we have been civilized enough to put our fellows above our own personal interest.  Aren’t we special?  Aren’t we deserving.”  Relatedly, it allows the West to not feel guilty about their material privilege.  It means that the average American does not need to feel undeserving in earning 9x that of the average Brazilian (US$69,821/yr as of 2011 vs. US$7,898/yr as of 2010).  We can simply conceptualize it as a reward for our superior moral virtues.

Third, and perhaps more importantly (and certainly less condemningly), it allows us to preserve our faith in human agency.  The discourse on corruption allows us to believe that our well-being is susceptible to human intentionality.  It allows us to continue seeing ourselves as masters of our universe rather than as merely its subjects.  Particularly when we see examples of brutal poverty, we all want to “do something”.  “Just eliminate corruption” gives us a convenient reassurance that something can in fact be done.

Unfortunately, little of this actually redounds to the benefit of those in developing countries.  In fact, I feel that such illusions are not only wrong, but often dangerous.  I will explore this in my next post.


  1. Great -- yet another new intellectual forum in which to be completely ignored ;-)

  2. Michael, I just posted the response I had promised you. You can stop complaining now ;)