Interpreting anti-corruption within a public ethics of accountability

Interpreting anti-corruption within a public ethics of accountability

Interpreting anti-corruption within a public ethics of accountability

Emanuela Ceva and Maria Paola Ferretti

A standard premise of anti-corruption is that to fight corruption we need to identify and remedy its negative consequences. For example, in cases of ‘political corruption’ the primary goal of anti-corruption has been that of addressing the negative consequences of the corrupt behavior of public officials (Philp 2015) or, on the other hand, of systemically corrupt institutional practices (Lessig 2013, Thompson 2018). In keeping with this approach, Transparency International has based its reports on the costs of political corruption in terms of economic inefficiency and public distrust in institutions.

Despite the many legal actions undertaken to implement this consequences-driven anti-corruption agenda, corruption indexes depict a phenomenon whose magnitude has not encouragingly decreased. In view of these disappointing results, we wish to challenge this approach to anti-corruption by proposing an interpretation of corruption as an inherent problem of public ethics.

A public ethics perspective

To interpret corruption as an inherent problem of public ethics requires and implies two important changes of perspective. First, we must look at the wrongness of corruption beyond its unlawfulness (bribery) or its negative socio-economic impact (on a country’s growth). Second, we must disassociate the evaluation of corruption from the circumstantial assessment of the consequences of any one single manifestation of this phenomenon. Instead, our new perspective concentrates on the structural causes of corruption as a practice and bases its normative assessment on the features of the dynamics of interaction that the practice of corruption instantiates.

This way, we can make sense of the wrongness of corruption even when—in non-ideal conditions—certain specific instances may have positive externalities (e.g., when they work as an “institutional grease”—Pande 2008) or when the negative impact of some individual corrupt behavior on the overall quality of an organization is either negligible or hard to establish (Ceva 2018; Ferretti 2018). In these instances, there is a general tendency to discount the wrongness of individual acts of corruption; we think we must also account for the intuition that there is, however, something prima facie wrong with the practice of corruption in its own right.

A duty of public accountability

To make sense of this common intuition we need to re-conceptualize corruption as an inherent kind of relational wrong that occurs when those who hold an office in rule-governed organizations use the power entrusted to their role in a way that contradicts the commonly known terms (the letter or the spirit) of their power mandate (Ceva & Ferretti 2018). In this sense, office holders make a publicly unaccountable use of their entrusted power. This use is inherently wrong from the perspective of a public ethics of office because it contradicts the requirement that any officeholder should be capable of vindicating the rationale of the agenda she pursues when she acts in her institutional capacity with reference to the terms of her power mandate. Because of the interrelatedness of organizational roles, the duty of public accountability—around which this public ethics of office revolves—qualifies the terms of the interaction among those who act in their institutional capacity and between them and those over which their power of office is exercised. Corruption is a failure to act on this duty and, therefore, it is inherently unjust.

To illustrate, consider the practice of patients paying extra fees for such services as blood tests that are in fact subsidized by the National Health Service. Many see the most worrisome aspect of this form of corruption in the distributive inequalities it creates between affluent and poorer patients (Rand Europe 2016). We certainly recognize the relevance of these distributive inequalities for the design of anti-corruption policies. However, we argue that there is a deeper and more fundamental sense in which such corrupt practices are inherently wrong. Notably, they constitute (not merely cause) a fundamental violation of the kind of treatment that ought to be granted to all citizens.  This violation occurs in virtue of a publicly unaccountable relation that certain citizens are in the position of establishing with corrupt officials. When such corrupt practices are widespread, people may obtain the services they need, but the access to those services is regulated by a logic of clientele which makes the access a matter of privilege, rather than of right (Ceva 2018). To wit, people are treated as clients rather than citizens. Thus, their political status as right-holders is violated in a fundamental sense. The apparent salience of this violation explains why we should be concerned with the practice of corruption whenever it occurs, whatever consequences it has, and place anti-corruption at the center of the political agenda.

First, identify the structural causes of corruption…

Focusing on the inherent wrongness of corruption as a problem of public ethics entails that anti-corruption measures ought to be in place and may not be left entirely to a cost-benefit analysis depending on the potential economic and political benefits that certain episodes of corruption may provide. The state’s institutions are legitimated and required to use their coercive power to implement measures to counteract corruption to remedy the violation of the duty of public accountability in which the wrongness of corruption inherently consists.

One of the main challenges of anti-corruption is thus to identify and remedy the structural causes of the practice of corruption rather than ‘patching up’ its occasional consequences. The state is certainly justified to act out of concern for the distributive inequalities that corruption causes. Our argument provides a reasonable ground to think that a more fundamental kind of action is also required to identify and counteract, for example, the organizational structural factors that make certain areas of the public sector vulnerable to such corrupt practices as clientelism (e.g., the health sector) or nepotism (e.g., as concerns hiring practices in public offices). These factors should inform indicators of political corruption, capable of tracking the economic, political, but also social and cultural determinants of this phenomenon across different contexts.

…then, foster a public ethics of accountability

Once relevant instances of political corruption are identified, an appropriate anti-corruption strategy should not be limited to the design of strict legal office regulations (e.g., by specifying the boundaries for the exercise of the officials’ discretion within a code of conduct); neither should it only provide for a tougher criminal prosecution of corrupt officials, or simply set some ‘good governance standards.’ All those strategies have been shown to have modest success in counteracting corruption (Mungiu-Pippidi 2006).

We suggest, rather, that at the core of anti-corruption strategies there must be a commitment to fostering a public ethics of accountability through socio-political actions aimed at discarding the mechanisms of leniency that make corruption tolerable. This strategy may require, for instance, to fight the system of incentives (that underpins, e.g., the practice of smoothing administrative processes through the payment of bribes), which may obfuscate the wrongness of corruption where specific instances of this phenomenon happen not to have any immediate and material negative consequences but, in fact, are perceived as an instrument to cope with social injustices and inefficiencies. This may be possible through a simplification of public administration processes, which may make it less crucial to rely on the personal favors of a crooked official, e.g., in order to obtain documents in a reasonable time.

A complex anti-corruption strategy must have multiple entry-points in society (e.g., the media, schools, civil society and professional corporations as well as governmental initiatives) and rely on the synergy of a multiplicity of (government and non-governmental) stakeholders to sustain a culture of anti-corruption that condemns practices of corruption as inherently wrong.

These are just some promising suggestions for a concrete strategy capable of developing a public ethics of anti-corruption grounded in the establishment of both institutional and individual responsibilities to ensure that citizens are treated as demanded by their status as the bearers of rights and that officeholders and institutions honor their duties of public accountability.

Emanuela Ceva is Associate Professor of Political Philosophy at the University of Pavia and Fulbright Scholar at the Edmund J Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard

Maria Paola Ferretti is Senior Research Fellow in Political Theory at the Cluster of Excellence ‘The Formation of Normative Orders’ at the Goethe University of Frankfurt on Main.