The corrupt, and the corrupted

Corruption is something that’s hard to describe, but we usually “know it when we see it.” Justice  Stewart’s words were originally intended for pornography, but corruption suffers from an indeterminacy of its own. Even when we agree that corruption is happening, it is sometimes difficult to know what it is that is corrupt, and what is doing the corrupting. This last bit—what does the work of corruption—is often a matter of debate.

That’s the subject of Lawrence Lessig’s Daily Beast article today, which makes use of an exchange between Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Mitch McConnell (R-KY). McCain, in 1999, claimed that the roll of campaign contributions of the size experienced in the USA “corrupted our political ideals;” an idea that McConnell objected to by demanding to know who was corrupt. Lessig argues, in his article, that even in the absence of a corrupt person, a system may still be corrupt. Lessig argues that McCain’s claim

…is not about bad people doing bad things. The complaint is against a bad system, which drives good people to behave in ways that defeat the objectives of the system as a whole.

It is an interesting notion, and an important one—that systems can be corrupt, even when people aren’t. Institutional arrangements, when corrupt, can drive people in directions that are unfavorable.

I think, however, that Lessig is too quick in what he attributes to McCain. Though he later reneged, denying “that any individual or person is guilty of corruption in a specific way,” McCain claims that the campaign contribution system at present is a corrupting influence—one that corrupts everyone:

In truth, we are all shortchanged by soft money, liberal and conservative alike. All of our ideals are sacrificed. We are all corrupted. I know that is a harsh judgment. But it is, I am sorry to say, a fair one. And even if our own consciences were to allow us to hide from it, the people we are privileged to serve will not.

The importance of this comment can’t be understated. McCain isn’t necessarily saying that anyone is corrupt. He is however, saying that he and others are corrupted, and that they’ve been compromised in some way [1]. I’ve talked about being compromised elsewhere, but here I want to pull apart this notion of being corrupted—compared to being corrupt—a bit more.

The whole point Lessig wants to make is that institutional arrangements—for example, the effect of campaign contributions on the political process—change behavior. But in talking about the ways that corrupt institutions pervert individual actions, it is still important to talk in the language of individuals. The effect that McConnell wanted to (wrongly) identify as unidirectional—corrupt people cause corrupt institutions—flows in the other direction as well. Corrupt institutions do bear on individuals, as Lessig claims, but in doing so it can leave them corrupted, or even corrupt.

The difference between being corrupted, and being corrupt, is—if anything—very fine indeed. It seems plausible, however, to say that someone has been corrupted, or has had their actions corrupted, even if we don’t want to go so far as to say they are corrupt. That is, they’ve been compromised, but they do so under duress, and with little other options available.

This, of course, is a fine line to tread. Means don’t justify ends, but if your means are so limited as to make a problematic means the only way to a desirable end, then we make the best with what we have. Generally, we probably want to elect representatives who intend to bring about good outcomes, and promote reforms. These representatives may be compromised in doing that—no-one is perfect—but it seems that sometimes the price of the right person not stepping into that arena is too high. 

So maybe, in principle, we can have a corrupt system, with corrupted, compromised members, but no one genuinely corrupt. Of course, that seems somewhat optimistic: if there are people in congress actively opposing reform designed to redress a corrupt and corrupting institution, then they are most likely corrupt. Moreover, those who exploit a particular corrupt institutional arrangement for their own gain are certainly corrupt.

I don’t mean corrupt in the sense of unlawful activity, and I certainly believe that this is what McCain was attempting to cover for when denying that anyone was guilty of corruption. Representatives, Senators, and presidential nominees can accept and use campaign contributions, and do so in a lawful manner. Lobbyists aren’t breaking laws. But they, at times, doing the wrong thing.

We should also keep in mind that those who become compromised are still doing something wrong, even if there is no or little other alternative. And insofar as they are overly tardy in assisting in rectifying the system that corrupts them, they should be held to account. Hopefully, enough of these corrupted people will help in the reforms Lessig is championing, such as the American Anti-Corruption Act (ACA).

What legislation like the ACA hopes to accomplish is the make the unethical, unlawful. That’s a great thing. But it is also important to call out the individually corrupt, and recognize the corrupted, when we see them. Institutional reform is vital, but regulation and law rarely make corruption go away by themselves—corruption often occurs within the scope of lawful activity, and the genius of motivated people out to pervert something good can be nothing more than breathtaking. Preventing corruption does require regulation and legislation, but also requires vigilance and loud voices. We should make sure that we pay attention to the individual, as well as the institutional; to the corrupted, as well as the corrupt.

[1] McCain uses the term “corrupt” in three different ways in that speech. In his first usage, he refers to the Government as corrupt. In his second and fourth, he refers to the presence of campaign contributions being a corrupting factor. In his third—used in the quote above—he refers to the representatives as corrupted.

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