How to think politically about anti-corruption

By Joseph Pozsgai

Why do people even care about corruption?


When we think of corruption, we automatically associate the word with a state of rotting affairs, events pernicious to our health and / or the state of our countries. Conjuring up such mental images is a natural reaction, as historically the term was first associated with the decay in moral standards; only later did it assume a legal connotation. Its conspicuity in the media is a relatively recent feature, however. Since the mid-1990s, corruption has become a regular feature of front pages and television reports throughout the ‘free’ developing world, as well as a regular topic of conversation in many industrialised nations.

The reason for its salience is fairly easy to identify: international organisations and national leaders finally recognise the economic costs of allowing corruption to run rampant – as information from Brazil currently demonstrates. Anecdotal information and scientific research abound and, consequently, the international community has taken important steps over the past two decades to curb malfeasance in public and private life as a way to defend commerce and investment, from the unilateral efforts of the American Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), to the global and far-reaching United Nations Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC). The impact of the international movement against corruption can be felt in almost every single country. But corruption is also a popular pastime for the elite and the masses alike, and its scandalous nature commonly has a ripple effect on the political system, demolishing careers and bringing the rise of new leaders and parties in their wake. This is the way most citizens construct their impressions on the subject and on their representatives, sometimes with much effect on elections, sometimes with little.

Although the academic community has gathered a great deal of knowledge on both the causes of and the potential solutions to corruption, it is still a risk to assume that the academic perspective is in complete sync with reality. Corruption continues unabated in many places throughout the world, despite the amount of foreign aid and technical advice provided, and particularly despite the common political discourse of leaders who enshrine anti-corruption as the core of their electoral platforms. The sharp difference between expectations and reality begs a simple but powerful question: why does corruption continue, unaltered … unfaltering?


As early as the 1980s, Robert Klitgaard gave ample thought to the magnitude and the complexity of implementation embedded in the anti-corruption idea. Considering the variety of activities and instruments that could be adopted to fight corruption, Klitgaard suggested that it would be inefficient to invest resources in all of them without considering the relative impact they potentially offered, and realised that ‘the ideal level of anti-corruption efforts will be short of the maximum, while the optimal level of corruption will not, in practice, be zero’. That is, corruption could not be completely eradicated without also burning the house down, although there should be an equilibrium point between anti-corruption and efficiency. This is the realm of economics and organisational studies, of course.

Going beyond Klitgaard’s normative approach, however, the anti-corruption idea shows more fundamental issues. The problem with efforts to curb malfeasance is apparent to the initiated: if leaders –who are the ones charged with the task of adopting and carrying out anti-corruption measures inside their organisations – are already engaged in illegal acts, the anti-corruption drive will not just stop short of the maximum (as Klitgaard’s tenet suggests), but will most likely stop much earlier than that. How early? Although the answer will change from case to case, we can reasonably expect the political will for integrity efforts to cease when they begin to pose a threat to the interests of the leadership.

But let us take a step back, before moving on. Anti-corruption, just as any other government activity, does not only translate into costs. Considering it affects society (we hope in a beneficial way), it also creates benefits for the government in the form of political capital. This capital, when we drop the assumption of a virtuous and devout leadership, explains in theory the reason certain policies are adopted while others are ignored. Not surprisingly, political capital is especially important in democracies, where it can translate directly into votes and power. Therefore, Klitgaard’s notion (of anti-corruption efforts being acceptable just providing productivity can be maintained) could be converted into a more realistic statement: anti-corruption efforts are pursued just only if they are politically profitable for the leadership.


Clearly, the obvious conflict between approaches based on political capital and political will is insurmountable when we artificially leave aside the crucial weight of agency and private interests. To reconcile both positions, it is necessary to accept that for an honest government, anti-corruption policies must only be attractive in direct relation to the political capital they can generate. Conversely, for a corrupt government, anti-corruption policies should be avoided in direct relation to the interests they threaten. Therefore, decisions over real-life anti-corruption interventions will depend on the benefit-cost ratio of political capital and illegal profits as assessed in a case-by-case manner.

But, just how much profit can leaders earn before losing enough political support to put their positions at risk? Or, conversely, how much support needs to be fostered to maintain a corruption status quo? While it is not possible to give precise answers without looking at specific events, our earlier and brief description of the reasons behind corruption’s modern salience can shed light on the specific scenarios under which a political system becomes stressed by the corruption status quo, and how it chooses to respond. The model is presented below and can be called a ‘systems model of corruption and anti-corruption reform’, borrowing the style from the works of David Easton.


Corruption is an output, and as such, it affects social actors in two different ways: public malfeasance can affect the objective conditions of the citizen, but it can also affect the way he or she perceives politics and behaves towards incumbent leaders. In the first case, corruption results in the production of material conditions that adversely affect the lives of society at large, including the international community. While these conditions of poverty and deprivation may not necessarily be openly recognised as connected to the levels of corruption in the country, they are nonetheless linked in a relation of cause and result, and so it is perfectly appropriate to say that corruption can be felt even when it is not seen.

In the second case, corruption is usually perceived through media coverage of corruption scandals (which are, for the most part, the only way citizens gain knowledge of the existence of malfeasance involving senior officials and politicians). We are all familiar with them; we just need to pick up a newspaper on any given day to find corruption screaming at us from the printed pages. What is less obvious, though, is the shared nature of the economic problems confronted by our societies and those scandals that enrage us. While producing various levels and forms of popular dissatisfaction and protest, both situations are the consequence of corruption in the system, and both challenge the leadership by reducing the amount of political support that keeps them in power.

The third scenario of stress for the political system comes in the form of external disturbances. These are events that occur in national and international society and modify the level of corruption tolerance among its members, producing new patterns of behaviour and organisational arrangements. The FCPA and the UNCAC are obvious examples, best manifested by the impact of the international anti-corruption movement on national legislation. By reacting to the persistence of underdeveloped integrity systems, any decrease in external corruption tolerance tends to increase the level of stress over local leaders, influence popular approval, diminish political support and threaten the corruption status quo.


While all three scenarios represent a challenge to government stability due to the presence of corruption in the country, each one of them embodies a distinct set of wishes, anxieties, and demands from society, and therefore they are met with different responses. Straightforward strategies under each scenario will include the provision of subsidised goods or the adoption of market reforms to boost a corruption-damaged economy; the swift prosecution of corrupt bureaucrats or the creation of special investigatory commissions to address scandals; and / or the production of new anti-corruption legislation to comply with international conventions.

What do all these measures have in common? Regardless of their normative benefits and potential, they are also vulnerable to symbolic adoption and political instrumentalisation, becoming in such situations mere coping strategies rather than real anti-corruption measures. For honest leaders, either case provides short-term political capital. For corrupt leaders, only the latter approach secures the stability of the status quo regarding illicit gains. This is the tragedy (and the explanation for the common failure) of anti-corruption implementation.

In short, different politically stressful scenarios caused by corruption do not only require different approaches from the government, but they also offer leaders different ways to harvest support while keeping the corruption status quo in place.

With these basic premises, then, we can finally begin thinking politically about anti-corruption without taxing the forces of reform with unnecessary cynicism. We do this by honestly and clearly reflecting on political channels in a way that not only accepts, but embraces, the tenets of political capital, political will and agency.


Joseph Pozsgai Alvarez is an international associate at the University of Tsukuba in Tokyo, Japan. 

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