Corruption is universally denounced around the world. I am not here to defend corrupt behaviors, but I am weary of anti-corruption campaigns. It is difficult to separate the political from the practical in their aims. The result is rarely the end of corruption, but the elimination of political rivals. This seems to be the case in Saudi Arabia, Russia and in a way China.

The role of corruption extends back into Ancient History. Yet it is difficult to decipher corrupt behavior because politics was meant to enrich the officeholder. Tax collectors were paid on commission. They raised as much money as possible but were only required to send a part to the government. They were incentivized to raise funds. This helps explain why the tax collector was looked down upon in the time of Jesus. They were ruthless people who squeezed every dollar possible out of their community. Local governors were expected to live lavishly. Again, this was an incentive to both maintain their loyalty and to govern effectively. The tax collector is also called a tax farmer. It was wrong to take everything from the community. Not because of an ethical consideration. But because they needed to ensure there was a large tax yield in subsequent years.

Corruption is not just an act. It is often a behavior. Efficient governments isolate the behavior and punish it before it gets out of hand. But too often government is inefficient. Corruption becomes an accepted social norm. Perhaps this is a poor account. Corruption has always been an accepted social norm. The rise of an efficient, modern and professional bureaucracy has forced corruption into the margins where it has become isolated and punished. The problem is professional bureaucrats are often underpaid. Police officers in many parts of the world are so underpaid they work a second job as a security guard to make ends meet. Corruption becomes a necessity to provide for their family.

Saudi Arabia, Russia and China are supposed to represent strong state governments. Yet their governance is much weaker than Western Liberal Democracies. Strong states have a strong and effective rule of law. Ryszard Legutko has written about totalitarian temptations in democracy, but I cannot get away from the though that he is asking us to abandon the rule of law to traditional institutions. This is the path to endemic corruption. It is paradoxical how an omnipresent government cannot control itself.

It is true many democracies struggle with corruption. The Brazilian government has just faced the massive Car Wash scandal that has impacted multiple nations in Latin America and led to a prison sentence for a former President. Yet this also shows how fragile the rule of law has become in so many countries. The backbone to the law is not enforcement. It is the ability to internalize the law into everyday behavior. Corruption represents a disrespect for the law.

Anti-corruption campaigns sound good on paper. But authoritarian governments will never root out corruption because the have not embraced the rule of law. Their form of government represents a fundamental departure from the rule of law. Of course, Putin does not want to eliminate corruption. On the contrary, he encourages it. It becomes a form of blackmail where he can force out leaders who become obstacles to his leadership. China is different. Xi believes the Communist Party can control corruption through its own internal disciplinary mechanisms. Yet he has married his anti-corruption campaign to an ideological campaign. Rather than punish a member for their beliefs, he can find them guilty of corruption. Again efforts to end corruption are so rarely about corruption.

jmk, carmel, indiana, democracyparadoxblog@gmail.com

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