Corruption: A Few Historical Remarks

July 2012
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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...

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