July 2012

Corruption: A Few Historical Remarks

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Ukrainian society is fundamentally historical. Ask us about modern problems and we’ll usually begin our answer with their roots in the conversion of Rus' or the Mongol invasion.

It is the same for corruption. Its total presence in every field of Ukrainian society’s life invites us to believe that its roots are in the past. And that's why it's unlikely to be overcome in the near future.

This way of thinking is partly justified. However, it is most important to recognize that there are certain limits beyond which this penchant for historicism no longer explains, but only impedes understanding. Or even worse, generates fatalism and justifies our lack of activity.

The first step against this fatalism is the recognition of the simple fact that, for better or for worse, the Ukrainian situation is not unique. Corruption exists in any society of any era. We can find complaints that the world's going to ruin because bribe-takers and corruption have become widespread on an Assyrian clay tablet from 2800 BC. Although it's acceptable to think that corruption is typical most of all for eastern societies, we find mentions of it in many classic texts in the western intellectual tradition: from Plato and Aristotle to Machiavelli and Rousseau. The search for specific historical causes for every separate society, then, is already destined to fail. 

Actually, there is one universally applicable correlation: corruption is tied to poverty. And that is in an inverse proportion: the poorer the society, the higher the corruption. The best and most reliable approach to fighting corruption is raising the level of wealth in society. Australia offers a good example. One hundred years ago it was one of the poorest and most corrupt countries in the world, and now it is one of the least corrupt, and accordingly, one of the richest. And what's more, one of the happiest, according to the latest survey.

The question of cause and effect, whether poverty leads to corruption or whether corruption soaks up society's wealth, is reminiscent of the question, "Which came first, the chicken or the egg?" Perhaps it is wise to admit that corruption is simultaneously a cause and result of poverty in society.

At first glance, the correlation between poverty and corruption puts history out of the picture. But only at first glance. The comparison of classical texts with the current situation shows that the very idea of corruption has undergone a fundamental change during the past few centuries. In classical texts corruption had a number of meanings and concerned the moral health of society or political life in general. The contemporary definition of corruption as an "individual act connected with abuse of political or public power for the sake of personal gain" is a product of the modern era. [1]

Of course, this does not mean that this kind of corruption is inherent exclusively or chiefly to the modern era. It's about something else: what is usually considered corruption today was thought to be the norm under the "Old Regime."

Examples might include, say, the system of "feeding" instituted in Rus’ in the 10th and 11th centuries, which became one of the most widespread practices in Old Russia,[2] or unpaid positions of the chancellor or treasurer in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. In both cases, there was no clear boundary between private interests and public affairs, which is the essence of corruption in the current understanding of the word. 

We might hazard the thesis that we have only started fighting this kind of corruption in the modern era, and more specifically, in the process of modernizing old social orders. If we accept this thesis, then the discussion about corruption and its historical roots begins to make sense. Many researchers add another factor, values professed by the population, to the accepted formula of corruption:

C (corruption) = M (monopoly of power) + F (freedom of action) – A (accountability)

It is not completely clear how this formula works. But it is possible to assume that, insofar as values are formed historically and clearly correlate with social wealth, and that at the same time corruption is connected to poverty, then a kind of indirect connection between history and corruption exists.

We can check and discuss this thesis on the basis of empirical data built up from the beginning of the 1980s as part of the World Value Survey. The research shows clearly that values correspond to wealth in society (they can be spread like butter on bread) and form a so-called "path dependence": certain countries in the process of modernization have historical advantages. Simplifying out of necessity, we can reduce these advantages to three factors (see Table 1): religious (Confucian and Christian countries are more successful, and within the Christian world Western  Christian countries fare better, particularly Protestant ones--Max Weber, it turns out, had a point.); imperial (The British Empire in contrast to the Spanish, French or Russian, still created certain historic advantages for countries under its control – and so Niall Ferguson is right here) [3] and the absence of communist experience (Communism has turned out to be an impeding factor everywhere it existed or exists; however, this does not concern the left tradition as a whole: social democracies are usually more successful – and so the Marxist revolutionaries were wrong, but the Marxist reformers were right). This does not mean that countries without these advantages are destined to failure. Rather, it means that elites of certain counties have to overcome more historical inertia than the elites of others to attain stable development, a crucial element of modernization. [4]


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