What is corruption?

This post is taken in part from my forthcoming paper in the Croatian Journal of Philosophy, ‘Political parties as corruption hazards: the republican case for sortition’. The special edition of the paper in which it was due to be published was meant to have come out in the spring, but world events intervened.

Something that surprised me a little when I first began looking at the literature on corruption is that there isn’t an agreed definition of the phenomenon. There have been a number of attempts at defining specific types of corruption, which we’ll come to in a minute, but to the best of my knowledge the only widely-accepted definition is ‘the abuse of entrusted power for private gain’, which is inadequate because there are core instances of corruption that have nothing to do with private gain.

Before I get into that, though, let me set out my alternative. The definition I propose is this: Corruption is abuse of power that builds or maintains the power of the abuser, or of some group, entity, or cause on whose behalf they act. This isn’t meant to be a redefinition, but a formalisation that captures the essence of the word’s common usages in a way that highlights what’s important about the phenomenon thereby identified.

Now this is an umbrella definition, and this is one of its major advantages. The two big questions that obviously follow in its wake – ‘what kinds of power are there?’ and ‘what constitutes their abuse?’ – are huge, open fields of research and public contestation. Other conceptions of corruption, in particular fields such as political institutions, can very often be used (with minimal adaptation) as partial specifications of their answers. Emanuela Ceva’s (2018) account of political corruption as the use of a publicly entrusted power of office (the relevant kind of power) for a publicly unaccountable reason (which constitutes its abuse), for example, can fit snugly under this framework in just this way. In fact, the restriction the umbrella definition places on the contents of the ‘publicly unaccountable reason’ – namely, that either it or the actor’s use of their entrusted power must involve getting or keeping power of some sort – helps address the criticism that Ceva’s conception is too broad: outside the umbrella, her definition encompasses every abuse of public office not demonstrably due to negligence.

Lawrence Lessig’s (2011) account of dependence corruption, wherein politicians become psychologically dependent on the generosity of benefactors and as a result are more open to their lobbying, can be similarly incorporated. The lobbyists abuse the wealth at their disposal to create a psychological dependence in the politicians that gives the lobbyists greater power to influence public policy; the politicians abuse their power by using it only in ways that keep them getting the perks to which they’ve become accustomed. Whether this abuse is conscious or unconscious is beside the point: another advantage of the umbrella definition is that it’s not so much concerned with actors’ inner attitudes as with the impacts of their actions, which are generally more empirically observable.

Dennis Thompson’s tripartite definition of institutional corruption sits even more easily withing this framework. This he frames as a special case of corruption as ‘abuse of public office for private gain’ in which

‘(a) the gain an official receives is more institutional than personal, (b) the advantage the official provides takes the form of access more than action, and (c) the connection between the gain and the advantage manifests a tendency to subvert legitimate procedures of the institution, regardless of whether an improper motive is present’ (Thompson, 2018, pp. 11-12).

The ‘institutional gain’ referred to here has to do with the operations of power: the core cases Thompson has in mind are U.S. congressional campaign contributions. Condition (c), meanwhile, is a definition of a certain kind of abuse of power.

Now this example is particularly interesting, because the politician engaged in this form of corruption might argue honestly and with justification that there is no private gain being made here at all: they wish only to work for the common good, and their taking office will prevent their dangerous opponent from using it to far worse ends. But they would still be engaged in corruption. This is one of the ways in which the ‘abuse of entrusted power for private gain’ definition falls down: corruption can be a means to a perfectly admirable end, without thereby ceasing to be corruption.

So a lot of different accounts of corruption in particular fields play nicely with the umbrella definition. But one immediate objection might be that, regardless of its intertheoretic merits, it doesn’t seem to capture the most low-level, everyday kinds of corruption: if I’m an underpaid traffic cop, and I shake down motorists so I can pay my rent, what ‘power’ am I maintaining? Calling my ability to live under a roof ‘power’ seems technically accurate, but a little odd in its emphasis. But this is exactly why such a general umbrella definition is useful: it’s a shift of emphasis – from petty corruption to grand corruption, but also from individual instances to the dynamics of corruption over time, and the ways petty and grand corruption can connect. It frames corruption as an investment of power that yields a return. This, as I shall argue in my next post, is why corruption is such a uniquely dangerous phenomenon for a free society.


Ceva, Emanuela. ‘Political Corruption as a Relational Injustice’. Social Philosophy and Policy 35, no. 2 (Winter 2018): 118–37. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0265052519000013.

Lessig, Lawrence. Republic, Lost. New York, NY, USA: Twelve, 2011.

Thompson, Dennis F. ‘Theories of Institutional Corruption’. Annual Review of Political Science 21, no. 1 (2018): 495–513. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-polisci-120117-110316.

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