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(c) Copyright Gerald E. Caiden
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Gerald E. Caiden

University of Southern California




This essay dwells on the question of cultural corruption, of why societies cannot seem to live up to their ideals, why they do not practice what they preach, and why they are so flawed, not just their individual members, but their families, communities, organizations, institutions, and also the global society itelf. This is no longer a matter of ignorance of the values they set for themselves or of intentional hypocrisy. People readily admit their shortcomings and confess to their failings. They do realize that they are still a work in progress and that unlike other living creatures they do have standards. They are ashamed of what was once common practice and in time they have considerably improved in their conduct and expect to do even better in the future. They recognize that they are imperfect and whatever they do is flawed and has unexpected consequences. Whenever they make great strides, they also make dreadful and regrettable mistakes. To their praise, they worry about ethical lapses. They concern themselves not only why they do right but also why they go wrong.


So what accounts for why people go astray, why they fail to prevent wrongdoing, why they are corrupt and corrupted in the wider meaning of that term? While much of the study of ethics from recorded history has concentrated on what is or should be right and how people could and ought to practice rightdoing (Martinez 2009), less attention seems to have been paid to wrongdoing presumably in case just mentioning it might make it more attractive. Although the cultural sources of ethics are fully acknowledged, they are somewhat fragmentary when dealing with those of corruption (Svara 2007, Thompson and Leidlein 2009, West and Berman 2006). Indeed, most contemporary definitions of corruption tend to stop short of considering the powerful forces at play that have perpetuated corruption and obstructed brave efforts to contain and reduce its prevalence. Like the story of the blind men and the elephant, academic ethicists have analyzed the many different specialized forms of corruption without identifying its overall nature or essence and the cultural glue that integrates them. A much better job has been done in demonstrating that corrupt practices have assumed many diverse, interconnected, and reinforcing forms that defy simple classification and easy differentiation (Cooper 1990, 1994, Richter, Burke, and Doig 1990, Van Wart 1998).        


To illustrate how complicated  and messier the phenomenon of corruption has become, when, for instance, a political regime is held to be corrupt, its residents protect themselves as best they can by devising their own unofficial counter-measures to temper any of its harmful impacts. When private business is characterized by sleaze, public business cannot be expected to be immune from its contamination, and vice versa whenever the state has dealings with private organizations. When religious authorities, with or without act relations with government, act

hypercritically and unethically, their followers are likely to copy their poor example. When communities discriminate, their social mores are probably taken for granted, enforced, and perpetuated for generations in defiance of the law. There might be straightforward explanations at work, such as abuse of position, power, and authority, the presence of scarcity, the temptations of immorality, the existence of irrational fear and hatred, and the failure of character to confront such departures from societal expectations but the root causes are likely to be complicated in the dynamics “of those conceptions of the desirable characteristics of a particular people”  which is the definition of the culture in cultural corruption used here (Husted 1999, 341).


More simply put, culture is viewed as shared patterns of meanings and understandings among group members (Van Wart 1998, 166) that may not even be recorded or necessarily spoken but merely a gesture, a handshake, or a symbol. But whereas the ethicists believe that people want to do the right thing, those who study corruption are not so sure because so many knowingly do wrong not just as individuals but collectively without being sociopathic. This occurs when corruption is accepted and taken for granted, so much so that it becomes invisible though it takes place in full view, like giving bribes or cheating on taxes. It becomes so common that everyone feels foolish for not joining in and standing rigid on one’s morality is costly and isolates the individual. One has to adapt to the prevailing mores that one learns to deal with and realizes one is powerless to change by oneself without making a spectacle of oneself. No one else seems as outraged to say enough is enough and to make a public stand to demand change.   


One of the more thorough examinations of the cultural dynamics behind corruption is a study of the alleged rapid decline in the values of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) in recent years (Sunder 2011). It starts typically enough by defining corruption as the abuse of public office for private gain but then spreads its focus on the much wider arena of individual integrity, administrative culture, and Indian society in a country where all types of corruption are endemic and systemic. It points a finger at a society steeped in particularism with strong bonds of kinship and caste ties going back to ancient India where amassing wealth through tactful (unethical) means was not censured. The British colonial rulers managed to ensure that the senior administrators were seemingly honest and morally virtuous and had character, but they were corrupt in other ways and racist and sexist. Once they left in 1947, it is alleged that public officials have since learnt to exploit not serve, with political black money as the source of all evil, including institutionalized corruption, nepotism, and patronage, and the fusion of public and private. Furthermore, this situation has been accompanied by public apathy and individual indifference to gross violations of human rights, misgovernance, and injustice suffered without protest as with all the traditional unethical practices blamed on values rooted in ancient India. Corruption has become accepted practice and a creditable thing and is not considered a crime. The social stigma attached to corrupt money has been erased from society.


The majority of the Indian society being illiterate and poor has to accept corruption as a way of life and tolerate corrupt leaders, as long as they get something as their share of the spoils…(T)he moneyed person always wins and it is a crime to be born poor. [The poor are poor] because of [their] past sins and hence not to be sympathized with, but to be condemned. The poor thus engage in illegalities to further prospects to match the rich… there is no way that the poor or lower castes get any justice out of the system...the values dear to the rich and the powerful upper classes, being greediness, cheating, bribing, crushing the poor and the downtrodden, oppressive regimes, denying opportunities to the poor and the lower castes, buying justice and other matters through money or muscle power, corrupt administration… The poor and the downtrodden lower casts survive by being servile, without any moral standards (Ibid, 247-249). 


This controversial conclusion probably contains within it truths that could be repeated elsewhere (Burke, Tomlinson, and Cooper, 2011) and for India has justifications in that country’s cultural context of social tolerance and easy forgiveness (Tummala 2002) and most certainly in regard to the influence of business lobbying in politics (Yadav 2011). It was written following a long series of scandals that so enflamed people that the government after many years of hesitation decided that it had to take action and establish an anti-corruption commission (Lokpal). It did this to head off more draconian measures to cleanse governance and society advocated by populist Anna Hazare emulating the venerated Gandhi and defying its authority to toughen the proposed legislation. Scandals elsewhere in Brazil, Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and China had embolden the public to protest in the streets against institutionalized corruption and capitalize on social unrest.


Sunder’s analysis is just one of a long line of commentators who have identified corruption as a socio-pathology arising from the inevitable tension between personal private obligations and public obligations to other factors that link individual integrity to the wider ethical environment in which people live. Everyone has obligations to other sets of norms besides those governing their employment “which it would be unreasonable to expect them to ignore.”


The dilemma for public officials is to balance these conflicting obligations, so that the inherent conflict does not lead to abuse and that their personal obligations do not compromise their public obligations. The two most common negative outcomes of such a compromise are undue gain and improper influence, or a combination of the two … I offer four conditions that increase the likelihood of this: (1) when their personal needs cannot be met legitimately; (2) when their personal needs an be met illegitimately; (3) when the social controls are weak enough that violations are unlikely to be apprehended; and (4) when apprehended, the cost is less than the benefit. (Aufrecht 2007, 189-190)


So, the remedies seem fairly straightforward. (1) Public officials and the citizens they serve must be able to follow the rules and still meet their basic needs. (2) Public officials should not be able to meet their needs through illegal channels. (3) Public officials pursuing illegal channels should have a high probability of being caught. (4) Punishments for corruption need to be greater than the rewards from corrupt practice. Good governance and bureaucratic reform should reduce the risks just as other proposed solutions would help. If only reducing corruption was this simple and self-evident but it is a much more complicated epistemological task.   



Shedding More Light on the Misunderstood


The evidence mounts that the cultural dimension of corruption has been for too long a poor relative of other studies. To some extent, this could be due to its being still a taboo topic in polite society, an assumed unmentionable. Yet, several persistent researchers have been able to penetrate the secrecy, the official propaganda, and the deceits. They have done so singularly in the case of Cambodia, one of the world’s poorest countries headed by a murderous kleptocrat where corruption is rife and anti-corruption laws have been gutted into meaninglessness (Brinkley 2011, Kerbo 2011, Nissen 2008) and Croatia where corruption remains an integral part of governance as in most of southeastern Europe as it has been for centuries where people knew exactly whom to pay, how much to pay, and what could be had in return by way of conferred privileges and payoffs from public funds (Goldstein 2011). They have done so as privileged groups with special access, as in the case of the World Bank studies in countries of Eastern Europe and central Asia into bribery, state capture, privatization, taxation, customs, economic regulation, and criminal justice administration, all of which are inter-connected (World Bank 2011) although that body confines itself much to economic corruption. Most of all, they have done so accompanying international troops stationed in the world’s trouble spots like African countries, Iraq, and  Afghanistan, and other international missions  around the globe where they witness corruption as a way of life for the populace with which they and their superiors are unfamiliar.


Clearly, individuals are cultural, not just political or economic animals. They are products of their families, communities, and societies, social beings shaped by their social environments, not just self enriching singletons fulfilling their own selfish needs and ambitions. They have a public as well as private life but which one gets emphasized varies in time and place from one extreme to the other, sometimes without a choice or preference determined by circumstances and at other times a personal decision among conflicting pressures. At one extreme, people are ready to sacrifice themselves so that their community or another person survives without thought for themselves, considered to be selfless heroism, while at the other are those who put themselves first before anything or anybody else and care nothing for others unless these can be of use to them, which alas is often the public view of professional politicians in many localities. There is a difference between the ultimate ends of being and the means of achieving them. One must be aware of both of them, the personal values involved, and the problems posed by “value relativism, nihilism, and materialistic individualism” (Alatas, 1990, 11) and the pure technical rationality that does not perceive evil let alone harm at risk to others that may well be the outcome of public policy (Adams 2011).


Yet despite every attempt to socialize their members, families and communities, associations and organizations frequently fail. They nurture their charges who they teach how to think and behave. Their charges feel obligated to them and try not to offend but instead to honor and protect them. In return for all their efforts, they do not expect to be cheated or deceived but to be respected, favored, and rewarded.  But every person has a mind of his or her own and is free to choose to accept the expectations of other people or upset prevailing social norms. Despite all good intentions, children defy their parents and siblings, partners break up, friends separate, families move away, and groups dissolve. The further they distance themselves, the weaker may become their former linkages until they drift away altogether and lose all sense of identification. In so doing, what has supposedly been inbred loses less and less meaning and the more social distance, the more unmindful of once implied common duties and obligations and any guilt feelings in becoming strangers one to the other. They have to forge different links, altered states of mind, and a new cultural milieu in which they feel more comfortable.  Until accepted, they will feel a little out of place and subject to suspicion, even hostility, and taken advantaged of without quite knowing how to avoid being victims as newcomers.


In contrast, the farther members are separated from their mentors, they may find their bonds strengthen and placed above all else. They still remain insiders with all others, beginning with other extended families and other localities and then a widening range of strangers, being considered as outsiders for whom there can be less and less consideration, fewer scruples, and weaker and weaker obligations. Whereas fellow members share most things together and would not think of harming one another, outsiders are kept their distance and are treated differently without conscience as fair game, including corruptly, something that would not be done to insiders. Insiders stick together, look out for one another, and protect each other against all-comers and know that they can depend on their mutual identification. Such in-groups always have the advantage over strangers, especially newcomers, migrants, refugees, and vagrants, and do not hesitate to use it.


Because of these and other imperfections, no society has ever been totally free of conflicts over beliefs, values, morals, ideals, expectations, hopes, and what constitutes the collective good. At no time have people in recorded history been able to live up to their ideals of proper behavior. But whereas in the past knowledge about misconduct particularly in high places has been confined to the few within inner circles, today it is coming increasingly into the open and becoming subject to serious research. Not a day passes when somewhere around the globe mass media highlight wrongdoing in virtually every aspect of human activity not just in the corridors of power but also allegedly in warfare, business, religion, research, education, communications, entertainment, and sports down to the smallest detail (Burke, Tomlinson, and Cooper 2011). No literate person can be unmindful of the amount of sleaze, black money, lobbying, self-dealing, unauthorized self-enrichment, bribery, fraud, manipulation, deception, and other forms of wrongdoing that occurs and accumulates until it does bring rage and violence, instability and terrorism, inequality and jealousy, exclusion and suicide, and cynicism and distrust of all public institutions.


Even where things do not decline that far, there is the coarsening of public life, the rough-tongued distain in communications, the abandonment of standards, the currying of favors with the unscrupulous, and the wholesale corruption of values and general malaise in both public and private life, with public leaders shirking their responsibilities that “sends the message that anything goes, that right and wrong don’t matter, that we call all be in it for ourselves as long as we can get away with it” (Burns, 2011, 3). How are young people likely to react when seeing such a state of affairs that nobody seems to be willing or able to halt? If this is the situation in the United Kingdom, what are the prospects in Afghanistan where corruption is traditional, endemic, and cultural? There, as in many other of Afghanistan’s neighbors both near and far, palms have to be greased to obtain most public goods and services, illicit production and trade in narcotics is a major industry, and foreign aid is bereft with legitimate, transparent, and open corruption that the donors seem powerless to prevent, diverting public resources into private hands. Real power belongs to shady characters who hold the populace to ransom and terrorize those who will do their bidding.   



The Question of Values


Where once corruption was very much a taboo subject, it can no longer be ignored or brushed aside, given its global reach. This newly found publicity is creating the impression that corruption is getting far worse than it ever has been which in turn gives rise to demands that much more should be done to reduce its nefariousness. Unfortunately, as much corruption still remains hidden and many of its perpetrators have little desire to show themselves, its actual extent cannot be accurately known. Nonetheless, it does have to be taken more seriously. Despite all the protestations to the contrary, corruption is deeply embedded in human conduct, so deep within society such that very few can escape it and avoid the pulls of personal ambition and avarice that tempt people to indulge in misbehavior. Presumably, more thorough research and investigation should eventually reveal why it persists despite every reasonable attempt to combat it.


As corruption (bad conduct) is the opposite of ethics (good conduct), any consideration has to begin first with what values prevail or are assumed to prevail in any community because such values and their underlying beliefs can change in space and time, sometimes slowly but at other times quite rapidly (Frederickson 2002). For public officials, this ground has been recently explored historically from the Eastonian stance that if government is the authoritative allocation of values then the administrative state, among other societal institutions, imposes its special kind of morality (Jordan and Gray 2011). This particular study focuses specifically on the universal administrative values of efficiency, economy, efficacy, expertise, and equality, with detailed examples from the ethical traditions of ancient India, Daoism, Buddhism, Judaism, constitutionalist and republican Rome, Christianity, Islam, Africa, Liberalism, Marxist-Leninism, and Russia. It warns that “If ambiguous, then evil can seep in through cracks in law and policy, unnoticed by those enforcing it, until an abyss of evil swallows them and countless others whole” (p. 9). It stresses that values are context-laden, that they inevitably give rise to moral conflicts among the rulers themselves and between the rulers and the ruled, and that they are intimately related to tradition and culture. Other than reminding its audience that most public values have a strongly communitarian theme (p. 347), it stops short at outlining the principal values of the different societies without exploring their many reformulations, splits, and offshoots, whether observance of moral codes and communal happenings was to be taken seriously or lightly, attitudes to governance as such and to proselytization, literacy, work, volunteering, hospitality, charity, females, the poor, and the elderly and the rules for distributing land and property, conducting business and trade, allowing personal liberty and individual rights, accumulating wealth, dealing with crime and violence, and treating the environment and natural resources, in short, how life should be conducted within the collective, who to trust, what makes for social cooperation, and what gives life its intrinsic meaning beyond an empty striving for money, fame, and power.


By emphasizing administrative values, the study implies that public administration should be neutral, impartial, rational, value-free, outside the influence of religion and morality as if the values that were selected were not based on Western-based religion and morality and not derived also from local religious and moral values. Yet, many religions and moral codes are unanimous in stressing the need of public (and private) officers to acknowledge the moral responsibilities of their actions and accept accountability for their decisions. Corruption arises when they shy away from such duties because of their indolence, the absence of deterrence, tendencies to moral relativism, and the disrespect to moral teaching and training (Dwivedi 2011, 4). Public officers have first to be motivated to serve the public decline; they cannot be forced to behave ethically. Without dedication to public service, there cannot be ethical or good governance


Public service should be a vocation, a purpose-driven life devoted to the well-being of all… by setting a high of moral conduct and by considering their jobs  as vocations akin to religious calling…always… thinking ahead of the community, on behalf of the community… standards and requisites of operformance  should include what a public servant ‘ought not to do’  as well as an equal emphasis on the positive side of what he or she ‘ought to do.’ (ibid., 8-9)


From time immemorial, a fundamental divide has existed over whether ethical notions are universal spiritual values derived from belief or stem pragmatically from human needs, designed by acknowledged authorities, and applied as circumstances require. Both sides of the divide are somewhat self- serving; other people’s behavior must conform to what these authorities determine and what suits them when everybody else submits to their will. After all, morality is a control device that can be hijacked by any authority. Even when the spiritual and the temporal greatly coincide (orthopraxy) and reinforce one another’s ethical stance (Roy 2010, 113), cultural conflicts occur in regard to different categories of adherents, followers, and residents. Among the more difficult non-conformists both in thought and practice (in no significant order) are (a) the mentally disturbed who menace others and for their own self-protection have to be separated out because they might corrupt others or be injured by them, (b) the obstinate who want to show that they are different from everybody else and demonstrate their individuality, (c) the devious who take advantage of others’ conformity to serve themselves and their associates, (d) the eccentrics who devise alternative ways of thinking and behaving that may eventually replace the conventional,  (e) anyone who is unconventional and threatens to upset prevailing social harmony, and (f) the scared who fear that if they do not outwardly cooperate despite their disinclination, they and their loved ones will come to some harm. These and probably other groups can be contrasted with those who do willingly conform to social norms, do believe and practice what they preach and what is preached to them, and are not corrupt and cannot be corrupted in any serious way that harms others unless they find themselves caught in webs of societal, institutional, and systemic or grand corruption which practice immorality, even evil, that take too much moral courage to defy.


In this divide between the moralists and the pragmatists, the line between right and wrong behavior is blurred and indistinct.  On the one side, the moralists sure in their beliefs venerate personal integrity that honors their conceptualization of right conduct transformed into social norms (such as being polite, benevolent, kind, caring, thoughtful, loyal, conscientious, decent, and fair-minded). They are appalled at any contempt of those social norms and at any acquiescence to what they consider to open misconduct. In their view, authority figures should resist any temptation to deviate and should work for the common good never in their own self-interest. Authorities should set the example of good conduct, being virtuous, honest, truthful, and trustworthy in straight dealing. But they, like everyone else, are not expected to be perfect. Slight or petty transgressions can be forgiven providing these are relatively harmless, undertaken for good cause, and result in benefits to all. Otherwise, misconduct should not be tolerated. Wrongdoing should be exposed and the guilty made to pay appropriately for their sins as a warning to others who might be led astray.


On the other side are the pragmatists who know that things do not work this way and that people are fallible, even despicable, hateful, and incorrigible. They acknowledge that deviants are likely to hide their alleged misconduct and avoid exposure, being conscious of likely public disapproval. Miscreants (dubbed the corrupt) will cover over any traces that might be discoverable and frighten off possible whistleblowers.  When caught, they will try to bluff their way out and make excuses and rationalizations for their alleged misbehavior.  Indeed, in time they can become quite contemptuous of public opinion and eventually brazen enough to defy critics to the point where they feel sufficiently secure to parade without concern their breach of social norms. This shows how powerful they really are. They believe that they can get away with their misconduct simply because most other people given half the chance would do the same in their position. They are just being practical. Why not take advantage of the opportunities available? Why not help close relatives and friends and advance one’s cause? Why kill the goose that lays the golden eggs? Why not enjoy the comforts of position to compensate for all the sacrifices one has made to be where one is and for taking on such heavy responsibilities? In any event, most others in inferior positions are just envious and lack the talent, intelligence, industriousness, inventiveness, and ambition or too meek, complacent, and lazy to advance.  In brief, “morals are relative, the product of arbitrary tradition and social conditioning” (Orr 2011, 50), more a matter of opinion and circumstances than fixed and universal, and they depend on time and location and majority rule, which of course does not make them right by the moralists who find the pragmatists too tolerant of uncommon differences between cultures. This divide gives fuel to the cynics who see ethics as one big con-game manipulated by elites intent on ripping off the masses, bamboozling the gullible, deceiving the na´ve, and dangling out impossible promises and imaginary rewards in this life or in the afterlife (Ingram and Parks 2010, 89-95).  



The Ubiquity of Corruption


What this divide between value (ought) and fact (is) amounts to is that at no time can those in authority know for sure whether or not the norms under which a society is supposedly working are actually being followed, who is sufficiently deviant individually and collectively to be designated as corrupt, how many turn a blind eye to corruption because they do not think that corruption and the corrupt are all that harmful as is made out, and how many believe some corrupt practices can even be beneficial in certain circumstances and do not object at all to them.  Even apart from the fact that the authorities cannot always trust appearances, why should other people follow what the authorities, their betters, preach when the nature of authority itself can be so corrupting?  What is it about authority that makes its holders believe that they can get away with their misconduct, hold themselves above the law, break the rules they lay down for others, and believe themselves accountable only to themselves? Does the unceasing political need to make compromises in office, make deals, and take tough decisions eventually wear the incumbents down until their core values are lost and they lose their moral compass?


Late in the Nineteenth Century, Lord Acton when commenting on a book dealing with gross clerical misbehavior that had led to splits in Christianity came to his famous conclusion that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.


Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority. Still more when you super add the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.  (Acton 1887, 2000, 335).


His implication was that whenever authorities exercise their power over others, they are often tempted to put their own interests first. They take advantage of the public trust put in them to follow the prevailing social norms to disregard their duty to act as guardians of the common good. Whenever anyone has an advantage over others, that position is used to favor self-interest and “it is almost inevitable that claimants will seek favors from authorities and that authorities, in turn, appreciating the strength of their positions, will welcome inducements” (Rotberg 2009, 1) by accepting (or expecting?) gifts and honors as an acknowledgement of their superior status.


This generalization probably applies much more in private business matters than in conducting public business. Whenever people in public authority put themselves first, they can well place themselves in danger of undermining their own position. Any misjudgment could lead to their downfall when rivals push to replace them by promising to do better. Yet the risk pays off so often that the authorities are prepared to play as close to the edge as they can. Even when they are caught out and throw themselves onto the court of public opinion, they still have the upper hand. They are called upon to make decisions that others are reluctant to take to ensure the survival, security, safety, and welfare of their charges for which they have general backing no matter what. They know that most people are in no position to dethrone them unless really riled up and prepared to confront them in an uneven match. They can generally rely on conformity, complacency, tolerance, a forgiving attitude, admiration, and a hard core of dependents to rally in their defense as long as they claim to be maximizing the well being of conscious creatures, a prosperous civil society, and an atmosphere of beneficence, trust, and creativity, pursuant of wholesome pleasures (Harris 2010), even when to outsiders they evidently are not. Insiders have little knowledge of possible alternatives experienced by outsiders. 


There are many current illustrations of this abuse of authority in rogue states and criminal organizations as might be expected. They also occur elsewhere and in countries that should know better given their recent history. For example, Alexey Navalny, a lawyer and blogger, is a crusader against corruption in Russia (Ioffe 2011). He has uncovered criminal self dealing in major oil companies, banks, and government ministries. He urges his readers on the internet to scrutinize public documents for evidence of malfeasance and post their findings on the web. His work has already led to the cancellation of numerous government contracts and the revelation of substantial kickbacks in preparing for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. His worry as a whistleblower is the lack of transparency in both public and private sectors arising from his concern to protect his personal investments and warn other investors that “Russian power structures are corrupt inside out” and all the prevailing official assurances are just so much “mumbo-jumbo” (Loiko 2011, A9), pointing out that there have been few corruption cases that actually end up in court just as in India where there are few prosecutions and even fewer convictions (Sunder 2011, 248). Public leaders can suggest as many measures as they choose but  when the police, the prosecutors and the security services are all involved in covering up for corruption scams, culprits are rarely investigated (Loiko 2009, A9).


Pulling the threads together, the harsh conclusion is that corruption in Russia defines public life at every level (Legvold 2009) and gets worse with its drain on the economy and society. The government admits that some 20% of the military budget is plundered and some $35 billion  in government funds are stolen (Saunders 2011) and some two-thirds of Russians consider corruption to be the country’s most serious problem (Leonova 2011). If the truth be known, corruption is (and probably has always been) the practice everywhere to a greater or lesser degree except in a small minority of countries over the last one hundred years that have managed to transform their ways of conducting public business. As in Russia, public leaders elsewhere in every region around the globe have been notoriously corrupt and their corruption has been accepted as a way of life, justified by them as unavoidable, and accepted by their followers because the latter have had little choice. The public purse has always been raided for personal benefit. That motive has been one of the attractions of authority and worth the risks and sacrifices involved in pursuing a career that will eventually end up joining the elite of the day and hopefully entrenching one’s heirs and close friends in that position. This has now reached the point that the spread and interconnection of such corrupt and corrupting behavior is seriously threatening global security and world order, destabilizing countries, handicapping global development, widening the gap between rich and poor, undermining moral values, depriving individuals of their fundamental human rights, entrenching rogues and criminals, and blocking good governance (Huberts 2007, Rotberg 2009).     


Is this daunting view justifiable? Is it true that anything goes? By whose rules do people play? On the one hand, the authorities set the rules for everyone else but ignore them if they believe they can get away with that. On the other hand, their followers understand that while they have to appear to obey those rules, they have their own different agendas if they can avoid drawing attention to themselves. The outcome is decided at street level where the authorities have the advantage although they cannot possibly know what happens at every point of execution where the formal rules may be waived altogether or modified or even sabotaged by conniving dissidents. Ethnomethodology posits that how the rules get interpreted and applied is a matter of mutual negotiation and compromise in which the decisive factor is common sense assumptions based on knowledge and reasoning that are needed to make social life work (Garfinkel 1967). Things should go well where the participants share common values but where there is wide disagreement and authority has to be imposed, then resentment may eventuate into defiance, disobedience, and vengeance. When violence occurs, offending principals are targeted by mobs unless they can escape in time and have planned in advance for this eventuality.



Dirty Hands


These days, most execution occurs through bureaucratic organizations that endeavor to impose formally standard universal application assuming willing compliance within a fairly common culture where people share many values. This is not the case in Russia or anywhere else outside those places where there has developed a semblance of homogeneity making for substantial consensus reinforced by a strong will to minimize corruption in public life as evidenced by those countries and societies that have a justifiable consistent reputation for straight dealing, openness, and honesty, such as Finland and New Zealand. Impartial attempts by international bodies such as Transparency International and the World Bank to identify countries that are reputed to be respectfully the least and the most corrupt group much the same countries, with the prosperous democracies at one end of a good governance scale and dictatorships and failed states at the other (Heller 2009, 48-49). Clearly, cultural factors are behind the persistence of other types of corruption (psychological, social, political, economic, and administrative) all of which interact and overlap, thereby reinforcing one another as to whether they confound or support anti-corruption campaigns. This makes all the difference between corruption as an inescapable way of life and corruption as an incidental fact of life that can be contained. 


Moralists have always preached that public leaders if so minded can at any time choose to end the rotten systems they inherit and set the example of how things could (and should) be run and put into place a governance system that would not tolerate dirty hands. Most holy books detail similar systems of good governance that could be adopted and insist that public leaders should be held to a higher moral standard than that of their followers. Throughout human history, there have been rulers who met this challenge, resisted the temptation to rule in their own self-interest, vowed to eliminate corrupt practices, and prosecuted officials who failed to live up the ethical code expected of them. Their number has probably increased over the past one hundred or so years. As in India under British rule, official codes of ethics have been adopted, respected, and enforced. Professional career public servants have refrained from improper behavior and have disciplined their colleagues who have been discovered besmirching their profession and disgusting their colleagues. It is universally understood that as moral leadership is crucial for tackling the challenges of the time, increasing studies are being undertaken to improve leadership and developing future leaders who are expected to make a difference (Fairholm 2011).  


Yet despite these efforts corrupt officials can be found throughout governance. Corrupt practices persist because the people with whom they deal still stick informally to age old attitudes and practices and resist changing their ways. Members of the public stay loyal to proven crooks and thieves in public office. People accede to the succession of the rulers’ unproven relatives, cooperate with organized criminals, take poorly paid positions to make a living through bribes and bribe others to give them favors in return, and seek to gain access to authorities who can advance them. For these, corruption is common sport. Whistleblowing is unacceptable; it is a breach of comradeship and harmony likely to provoke retribution. To outward appearances nothing is untoward but closer inspection will reveal that things are not at all what they ought to be. Informal deals are being made not to alienate anyone, not to offend, not to be unreasonable, not to be unduly harsh or vindictive but to make life easier, decisions more acceptable, relations more pleasant, and generally soften relations between the authorities and their charges, the rulers and the ruled. This is ethnomethodology at work deeply embedded in the prevailing culture.


Moralists worry about these informal deals. They would much prefer openness, the sunshine that would expose wrongdoing, discrimination, irregularities, lapses of integrity, and departures from virtue, honesty, trustworthiness and straight dealing. They do not expect perfection; they allow for slight transgressions that are relatively harmless, undertaken for good cause, and generally beneficial. So, minor corruption can be overlooked. Sinners should be exposed and made to pay appropriately if only as a warning to others who might be tempted to copy their poor example. The sinners are of course the corrupt who roughly know how far they can go before being exposed and subject to public disapproval. They bluff their way out for they are savvy at justifying themselves, covering their traces, and scaring off truth seekers. Unfortunately, they become so adept that they believe in their own infallibility and become contemptuous of being caught out. They get so brazen that they parade their misconduct to show how powerful they and how weak everyone else is. They believe that anyone in their position would do much the same given the chance and given the opportunity. After all, most others are probably just envious or unqualified or less competent, altogether untalented and undeserving (Rand 1947, 2005). There ought to be some compensation for undertaking public responsibilities. So why not take advantage of one’s position? This is a timeless question. Every decade seems to offer its variations and additions. The ingenious find ways of evading detection and ahead of the law.   


How far do people with dirty hands reach? Scandals reveal that there is no limit. In all walks of life, the corrupt rise to the apex, and the higher they go, the more damage they can do and the more power they can employ to hide their past misdeeds and justify their current misdeeds. They have their mentors, collaborators, stooges, henchmen, and enforcers who leave many innocent victims in their wake. They show little remorse. Indeed, they are proud of their accomplishments. They have no regrets. They make sure that history records their side of the story as told by their devoted believers regardless of the facts. For instance, in the Soviet Union under Stalin,


There was room … for altruism, generosity, nobility even, but the capricious arbitrariness of the regime left even more room for cruelty and corruption. Worst of all was the terrifying fear and insecurity felt viscerally at all levels of society … you sensed an invisible trapdoor beneath your feet that might yawn open at any moment and drop you into an inferno from which there was usually no escape … you could be arbitrarily arrested, beaten, shot, or starved to death, or condemned to a life of slavery, and no one could escape the risk (Scammell 2011, 48).


The Soviet Union although extreme has not been that exceptional among the blackest regimes. Even in the whitest of regimes there are occasions when the victims of cultural corruption also feel that way when they see people with dirty hands in high places exonerated, celebrated, and revered. People with social standing expect preference and deference and to be given the benefit of any doubt. But people without status also try to get favorable treatment by fair means or foul particularly if nobody else need find out or suspect anything remiss. This is instinctive to human nature like the inner drive to succeed that pits one person against another. One person may see this as part of life’s struggle while another may view the same behavior as being unfair and unscrupulous. One person may view accumulating wealth as a just reward for providing livelihoods to others while another may see making money as the root of all evil and a diversion from the real purpose of living the good life. The former excuses and justifies what the latter considers unfair and immoral (Skidelsky 2011). This is the dilemma that arises from relating the dimension of cultural corruption to the broader moral landscape that the mainstream of research on corruption has too often conveniently evaded. If too many different forms of corruption are lumped together, it becomes quite difficult to sort out trends and separate the different causes one from another. Concentrating on specific corrupt practices relieves this obligation and simplifies analysis, thereby providing practical concrete technical solutions and remedies that may only drive corruption elsewhere.



The Nature of Cultural Corruption 


If one assumes that corruption is widespread and seems inevitable , that people cannot be expected to behave themselves at all times, that it is nigh impossible to grasp the amount  that occurs or its scope and variations over time or successes and failures in containing it, a more useful (utilitarian) approach to the phenomenon is to concentrate on its possible sources and limit its scope to the public or official organizations and to narrow it down further to  plunder of the public purse, bribery, kickbacks, and enrichment in public office. The common understanding of corruption is that it consists of dishonest, deceitful, and unfair practices irrespective of culture and there has been much agreement in identifying such wrongdoing without delving into its cultural milieu although it deviates from norms incumbent upon all. This is understandable because the same dishonest, deceitful, and unfair practices are found everywhere and remain much the same from time immemorial whether considered minor, petty, usual, commonplace, expected, and unreported, or grossly abusive, cruel, vindictive, treacherous, destabilizing, and bringing massive calculated death and destruction.


Consequently, the major focus in research on corruption has been more on the dishonest practices of public officials conveniently adopting the definition of the United Nations Development Program as “the misuse of public power, office, or authority for private benefit –through bribery, extortion, influence peddling, nepotism, fraud, speed money or embezzlement” (UNDP, 1999, 7), largely following Nye (1967, 419) with some variations by Fredrick and Klaveren (Heidenheimer, Johnston and Levine 2005, 15 and 26). This narrow definition concentrates on individuals who stray from official norms, not their organizations that may be systemically corrupt where wrongdoing has become the norm and the standard accepted behavior to accomplish organizational goals and where notions of public responsibility and trust have become the exception not the rule (Caiden and Caiden 1977, 306). It excludes many forms of wrongdoing that do not involve money and individuals who do not hold office in order to exploit office, promise to misuse office in the future, and seek not personal gain but to enhance the status, reputation, influence, benefits, and the ability to grant favors of the bodies they represent (Yadav 2011, 3).


More significantly, the narrow definition ignores the grosser forms of societal corruption and systemic global corruption. It does not quite cover the dishonest practices of private and non-governmental organizations such as business lobbies, trade associations, think tanks, law firms, and political parties, the magnitude of corrupt activities, and the presence of informal rules and practices that regularize and inform wrongdoing. Such norms are neither codified nor externally enforced although they “powerfully shape the interests and strategies of public officials and citizens” (Stephes 2007, 6-7). Nor does it deal with a basis of corruption that allows kleptocracy, i.e. governance by greed where authorities have little intention of following their own laws. Sheltering under extreme partisanship and selfishness, individuals and organizations try to get away with what they can although unlike the kleptocrats they may still accept legal and social norms and expect to be punished if caught. Much more serious is where authorities encourage corruption and have little concern about punishment or guilt feelings which has a corrosive effect on governance and “leads to a culture of acceptance of corruption” (White 2001, 45). Rules and norms are irrelevant as to how authorities and people actually behave and to expectations of how they ought to behave. Thus, in black regimes and failed states anything goes limited only by the extent of resistance by its victims if at all. They are “ungoverned spaces” (Traub 2011, 52) and “a threat to their own inhabitants” (Patrick 2011, 55).


Stretching corruption wider and wider from official misconduct to societies where chaos and anarchy prevail, where there are no common norms and rules, where no single authority imposes any order, where any and all misconduct is included, creates intellectual difficulties. This is best seen in one of the latest studies by a cast of world experts who try to place the phenomenon of corruption in context and cover the whole spectrum in the aptly entitled The Good Cause (Graaf, Maravic, and Wagenaar 2010). Its assumption is that “Understanding how different theories define, conceptualize, and eventually deduce policy recommendations will amplify our understanding of the complexity of corruption and illustrate the spectrum of possibilities to deal with it analytically as well as practically” (p. 15). The book identifies the following eight different approaches:


1.     The Weberian-idealtypical which sees corruption as a lack of rationality on the route from patrimonialism to rational legal authority such that loopholes exist in the incomplete bureaucratic system for corruption to occur;

2.     The structural functionalist which sees society as a collection of interlocking coherent systems that have their function wherein corruption also has its place as facilitating action by greasing governance operations;

3.     The institutional economics which sees the corrupt as rational utility maximizers who take the most profitable course to further their own self-interest in a world of scarcity. All organizations are vulnerable to exploitation by the unscrupulous;

4.     The systems theory sees society divided into separate, self-referential autopoietic value systems that when overlapping cause corruption when the penetrating values of one system abuse another system’s logic;

5.     The institutional design believes that as institutions shape behavior, some governance systems are more prone to corruption than others and it seeks to explore disparate causal mechanisms between rival systems.

6.     The ecological involves combining micro, meso, and macro levels of corruption research into a comprehensive model;

7.     The post-positivist focuses on how corruption is socially constructed within a society’s contested system of public order, of a public role or resource for private benefit (Johnston 1996, 322). As the meaning of deviancy varies in time and place, empirical research is required to understand the subjective perspective of reality.

8.     The criminological draws attention to the importance of the psychological make-up of the perpetrators of corruption whose results-oriented mode of operation makes them cross the line between laudable and lamentable behavior.

Valiantly, Leo Huberts attempted to put all these together in his comprehensive multi approach in which he simplified “corruption as the abuse of a (public) authority for private benefit” (p.148) with its multi-level causation and eclectic mapping of factors making for corruption (pp. 146-165). The word “culture” appears at the macro (societal), meso (organizational), and micro (individual) levels. It is related to values and moral judgment (p. 146) and by implication integrity, but this is not elaborated.


Considerably more was elaborated in another recent comparative study of corruption (Quah 2011) which did pay special attention to its cultural side seen as a community’s design for living, interpreted as its “patterned ways of thinking, feeling, and reacting, acquired and transmitted mainly by symbols” embodying its ideas and attached values (Kluckhohn 1951, 86). The study reveals wide contrasts between and within neighboring countries as to how they define corruption, the policy context in which it occurs, the extent to which it flourishes as far as that can be ascertained, the prevailing societal tolerance and cultural supports for its presence, the probability of detection and punishment, and the effectiveness of measures taken to contain it.

Even though the study is confined to ten selected countries in Asia, it has much wider universal significance as some features in all of them can be found somewhere around the globe, demonstrating how and why people fail to live up to their avowed values and ideals, how and why people indulge in corrupt activities when they instinctively know what they do is immoral, and why they accept certain kinds of corruption but not others. Much depends on the context or ecology of public life, the participants, and the time as everything is in a state of flux. There is no common Asian corruption. Generalization is almost impossible. Simple answers are beguiling but the truth is much more complex and puzzling to discern.


For example, throughout the world, gift giving is a feature of reciprocity in social relations as a means of showing respect, as evidence of good will and reciprocity, as a way of receiving better treatment or attaining a mutual benefit, certainly not seen as harming anybody. As such, it is perfectly acceptable until it slides into bribery for unfair consideration, special access and favors, undeserved beneficial treatment, evasion of the law, regulations, codes of conduct, and social norms, pampering superiors, and personal advancement and enrichment. In Singapore, but not in Taiwan, it is discouraged and officially outlawed. In contrast, as in Thailand, Indonesia, and Mongolia, where anything goes that advances the interests of oneself and family, promotes one into a privileged elite, provides debts of gratitude, and solidifies the elite, it is a way of life dividing the haves from the have-nots. In Japan, it constitutes structural corruption (kozo oshoku), that includes the black mist that governs politics in the private not public interest, the collusion between politicians, officialdom, and business (including the penetration of the yakuza into governance), the revolving door practices (umakudari and amakudari), bureaucratic bid-rigging, lack of financial transparency, and lavish entertainments at high not low levels. In India, gift giving has become institutionalized bribery as a way of life in obtaining any service but much depends on the locality as the practice varies from the gross to the puritanical. In the Philippines, it is bound up with family obligations, the accepted use of intermediaries to deal , all of which entrench networks, nepotism, speed money, indebtedness to authority, and the accepted use of intermediaries to deal with authority (compadre), and debts of gratitude (utang na loob) for favors rendered, all of which entrench networks, nepotism, speed money, indebtedness to authority, and the privatization of public values. In short, gift-giving can be a perfectly harmless custom or it can become divisive with sinister implications for the whole society.


Although Quah does highlight the cultural side to corruption, by sticking to the traditional definition of most researchers as exploiting public office for private gain, he does not venture into what values and ideals, such as survival, security, and safety, override and justify corrupt practices and the more fundamental issues of what to do about sleaze generally, the distortion of democratic precepts, class distinctions, religious disputes, the subjugation of basic human rights, and the institutionalization of evil that taint public attitudes.



The Taint of Corruption


That many academic approaches to corruption slide around its immorality has been criticized because in the popular mind it is associated with evil, decadence, degeneracy, and decay. 


Corruption is more than illegality, breach of duty, betrayal, secrecy, inequality, the subversion of the public interest, and inefficiency, whether those elements are considered alone or together…although all of these theories indentify  elements  that are often important characteristics of corrupt acts… they are not, alone or in combination, all that compose the corrupt core… [It] is evidence of a moral “virus” or “cancer”, an infestation of “evil”, all of which often seems to have religious roots… [It] expresses the transgression of some deeply held and asserted universal norm… it presents a vital threat to the larger societal fabric of which it is part [and] challenges the existing order. It substitutes personal self-seeking, family or clan loyalties, or other parochial goals and loyalties for larger societal identification and societal goals … it is a repudiation of the idea that a fabric of shared values is necessary to undergird societies and governments. (Underkuffler 2009, 37-9)


Because the standard prescriptions for combating corruption avoid moral content and the erosion of moral values, they may fail to grasp the complete root of the problem or critical pieces of the possible solution. They “may also fail to express the urgency of the situation where a country is battling systemic corruption” (ibid, 41). On the other hand, in exaggerating the evil of corruption, zealousness could be overdone Although it is destructive of societies, viewing it “in emotionally evocative and cataclysmic terms may propel it to a status of ‘universally causative evil’ that is ill-deserved” ( ibid. 41). At its core, it is deeply emotional and loathsome.


Cultural corruption is about what behaviors are considered at individual, organizational, and societal levels to constitute misconduct. What is cultural are the “goals, values and worldviews that are manifest in a specific community’s speeches, laws, and routine practices as well as the community’s particular way of life” (Shweder 2000, 163) and by value is meant “a conception, explicit or implicit, distinctive of an individual or characteristic of a group, of a desirable which influences the selection from available modes, means, and ends of action” (Kluckhohn et al. 1951, 395). Thus, cultural values are “those conceptions of the desirable that are characteristic of a particular people” (Husted 1999, 341). Sometimes, there is a broad consensus worldwide but other times there are quite wide difference of opinion about basic values among different societies and their smaller communities, and certainly among individuals. When it comes to corruption, some forms are universally condemned while others are disputed as being just the way public business is conducted in a particular society and seemingly acceptable by its members because they have little choice other than to go along with the pressure exerted by authorities and peers.


What is most disconcerting is that in some parts of the world, the conservative and reactionary traditions that linger due to ignorance, superstition, and folkways, do not make much sense in the contemporary global society. Visitors from without express their contempt at what they consider are the uncivilized features they observe. They cite, for example, unhygienic personal practices, filth, neglect, witchcraft, tribalism, crime, and cruelty to animals and humans, even cannibalism and slavery (Naipaul 2010). This situation is compounded by official rapaciousness, kleptocracy, foreign exploitation, local rivalries and hatreds, lawlessness, ubiquitous breakdowns of order, and inordinate waste. No wonder corruption is a way of life in such circumstances even without widespread poverty, population pressure, and a robber economy. In such places, even the authorities staffed by Western educated elites echo these observations and admit that things are a mess and work chaotically. Good governance is unknown. Public leaders lack integrity. Civil society barely exists as the inhabitants struggle against widespread iniquity with insecurity, ill-health, illiteracy, poor diets, inadequate public facilities, discrimination, and suppression of human rights. The rot comes from the very top too. Thus,


(L)iberation movements captured many African governments. They took control, created one-party states, and followed a philosophy of “I liberated you. You owe me!”…Then came the Cold War, which was at its highest during the fight for independence. It didn’t matter if you were a dictator or a thief. If you were an ally, then you were a client state. (Auletta 2011, 49)


Bad local leaders set a poor example for their followers. Their lack of will to clean up makes things even worse by institutionalizing kleptocracy.


Because of the contrast in values and expectations from one place to another and the difficulties and complexities involved in trying to measure even known corruption, generalizations are hard to come by. But some seem to be clear according to the latest research. First, as taboos surrounding the subject are shredded, more is known and discoverable. It indicates that corruption or at least the reporting of corruption seems to be on the increase. Concerns are expressed that individual integrity seems to be declining in the contemporary world. In any event, anti-corruption campaigns are disappointing and of only limited success that fades without persistent vigilance. Second, according to World Value Surveys (WVS) and the Corruption Perception Index (CPI), countries with seemingly lower levels of corruption have higher levels of trust among their populations and value their children’s independence more. In contrast, cultures that stress economic success but restrict access to opportunities have higher levels of corruption. Amoral familism contributes to corruption whereas Protestant countries seem to have less corruption (Lipset and Lenz 2000, 116-122). Otherwise, cultural control variables, such as ethno-linguistic fractionalization, Protestantism, and colonial heritage give some pointers but these are indistinct (Yadav 2011).


Other data found that (a) the greater the distance between rulers and ruled, the higher the level of corruption as questionable business practices would be more acceptable to high-power distance cultures, (b) the more collectivistic society, the higher the level of corruption, (c) the greater the masculinity of a culture, the higher the level of corruption, and (d) the greater the level of uncertainty avoidance in a country, the higher the level of corruption (Husted 1999, 345). What role did trust and religion play in curbing corruption? It was found that trust made for lower level of corruption because officials and citizens cooperated much better in fighting corruption (La Porta et al, 1997, 336-7) and that the more hierarchical religions hindered civic engagement as a deterrent to corruption, but once per capita income was taken into account, there was a much weaker correlation (Lambsdorff  2006, 18).


Then the situation becomes murkier. One observer has explained corruption in terms of “national mentality” (Glinkina 1998). Another has attributed Asian corruption to family relationships, central imposition, and low respect for the letter of the law, dating back to feudalism (Holmes 2006, 179), while others attribute the same causes to cronyism in government-business relations (Perkins 2000, 233) and to gift-giving (Larmour 2008, 226). But are cultural practices used as the excuse for corruption rather than its cause (Alatas 1968)? A founder of Transparency International, Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria, protested “I shudder at how an integral aspect of our culture could be taken as the basis for rationalizing otherwise despicable behavior” (Transparency International 2000, 9). Culture has been blamed simply because no other explanation can be found or because it undermines universal comparison.


Yet, ideas about blaming culture will not go away as long as countries refer to their heritage to defy universalistic values and where universalists defer to or at least accommodate claims of national difference (Larmour 2008, 226). But “Culture can only explain a certain fraction of the level of corruption and there remains sufficient room for improvement of a country’s integrity” (Lambsdorff 1999, 2). This assertion makes sense when the correlation between failed and failing states and their high levels of corruption is obvious, ever since Foreign Policy and the Fund for Peace began publishing their index in 2005. The same group of countries remains unstable and low on quality of everyday life, plagued by lawlessness and chaos, with illegitimate governments, impoverished economies, inadequate and insufficient public services, extremes of inequality, and excessive capital outflows and brain drain. Judith Tendler sketched this typical image of poor governance portrayed in international circles:


(P)ublic officials and their workers pursue their own private interests rather than those of the public good. Governments overextend themselves in hiring and spending. Clientelism runs rampant, with workers being hired and fired on the basis of kinship and political loyality rather than merit. Workers are poorly trained and receive little on-the-job training. Badly conceived programs and policies create myriad opportunities for bribery, influence peddling, and other forms of malfeasance. All this adds up to the disappointing inability of many governments to deliver good public services and to cope with persistent problems of corruption, poverty, and macroeconomic management. (Tendler 1997, 1)


Despite international attempts over the past decade, not much has changed from this grim picture in most failing states (Patrick, 2011, Traub 2011, Successful reforms have been few. Progress has been slow. Meanwhile, the situation elsewhere has continued if anything to deteriorate to the extent where more of the victims of corruption have awakened and begun to take action on their own to challenge corrupt regimes, threaten revolution, and resort to violent demonstrations.    




The Cycle of Cultural Corruption


Although Judith Tendler’s own research in Brazil pointed out that her grim picture was a distortion of things on the ground, there was sufficient truth in it generally revealed by other researchers to justify how much culture matters. For example, recent research on gift-giving in Pacific Islands sheds more light on cultural corruption. The following relevant entry points were identified in the  cycle of cultural corruption: general suspicion of corruption, identification of particular behavior or individual as corrupt, seriousness with which corruption is taken, people’s willingness to criticize and report corruption, how authorities mete out judgment on corrupt behavior, implementation of decision, and punishment (Larmour 2008, 231-4).


1.     General suspicion of corruption


General suspicion may not be based on evidence but results from secrecy and the government’s grip on power. Where transparency is absent and trust is confined only to a small circle of insiders, suspicion of wrong-doing is hard to shake off. This contrasts with generalized trust in the authorities associated with effective government, open government, low crime rates, and economic growth (Uslaner 2005, 77) where people are prepared to give office holders the benefit of the doubt. Although nobody may act, a suspicious culture can eventually lead to a “rotting fish” effect wherein “you live in a society where everybody steals. Do you choose to steal? The probability of being caught is low… Therefore, you too steal” (Mauro 1998).


2.     Identification as being corrupt


People consider whether a particular act or actor is corrupt or not (Larmour 2008, 231). Identification is a social event rather than a solitary decision.


It involves language, and in practice is likely to involve the to-ing and fro-ing of discussion with colleagues or friends or family (or some kind of internal dialogue reproducing these interactions). This process may refer to what others have done before, or would do – and involve role models, childhood injunctions, and the examples set by characters in folktales or film (ibid., 231-2).


Thus, gift-giving in Kiribati to public officials with the sole intention of showing respect is acceptable practice according to local custom and is not seen as corruption. Elsewhere, it may not be acceptable and considered corruption. Similarly, grateful patients like to reward their caregivers and victims of natural disasters and accidents like to thank their rescuers in sheer gratitude. In short, much depends on local tradition and the motivation of individuals. But too much gift-giving may be too much of a good thing as in Japan where it can be seen as inappropriate when it is seen as business buying preferential treatment from public officials and reinforcing network relations (jinmyaku) when it “generates a reciprocal relationship between the giver and the receiver “ already entrenched through other social relationships (marriage, education, party affiliation) that create an informal homogeneous policy elite (Choi 2007, 933). 


3.     Seriousness


No anti-corruption effort can succeed without strong political and public support. The seriousness with which corruption is taken is crucial as seriousness corresponds to moral pressure brought on corrupt public officials and aids on the thoughtfulness and thoroughness of anti-corruption efforts. But where corruption is widely suspected and assumed, where many problematic practices are tolerated as daily routines, and where much of the public is excluded from public policy making and responsible government, it is unlikely that corruption will be taken seriously because there is little oversight and public involvement. This is where power distance, interpersonal trust, relationship with authority, emphasis on personal moral obligations, and conflict resolution really count.


4.     Willingness to criticize and report


Cultures which attach great importance to interpersonal relationships label as betrayal behavior endangering such relationships or harming the material and reputational welfare of superiors, family members, business associates, friends, and workmates. There is an effective vow of silence in which nobody rats on another. Everybody turns a blind eye at corrupt practices and wrong-doing (Schuster 2004, 9) and nobody reports another’s misconduct lest it bring “shame to the family involved, damage to the social fabric, and the breaking of relationships” (James and Tufui 2004, 10). These cultural values make it more difficult to disclose and curb corrupt practices.


5.     Authoritative judgments


Tampering with judgmental decisions is a time honored practice very much influenced by culture where the status, wealth, marital condition, or sex of a client counts. The weaker sex, the poor and underprivileged are at a distinct disadvantage as are strangers and outsiders. This is particularly true where discretion rules and the law is unclear. All is subject to interpretation which brings in custom and tradition in deciding what is or is not considered corruption or harmful enough to be taken seriously (Taafaki 2004, 15). The victims of misconduct can expect little if any consideration and no fair hearing. No stain attaches to the accused who are vindicated of all wrong-doing. Thus, corruption is perpetuated and even institutionalized as normal behavior.


6.     Implementation of authoritative decisions


Judgment is tempered by mercy, sometimes in outrageous ways when the guilty are let off with a mere reprimand or a promise to compensate any proven victims in what may be viewed as a victimless crime. It is good to have friends in high places or to be a celebrity or to be so esteemed for previous acts of courage, leadership, and charity that one’s misconduct is overlooked or forgiven. When sufficient time has expired and memories have faded, implementation can be relaxed and the guilty handsomely compensated for taking the blame on themselves and not revealing accomplices or worse offenders. So, authoritative decisions if inconsistent with well accepted cultural values and the way things are usually done are harder to adhere to and effectively carry out. Thus, despite government bans, lavish feasting remains prevalent among Chinese officials, being “rooted in the ethos of Chinese communities” (Sun 2004, 29) and in Chinese social relationships (Mayfair 1994).


7.     Punishment/Enforcement


Where insiders are corrupt but can secrete their wrong-doing, they are aware that any disclosure will imperil all. They may pick on someone who has fallen out of favor as a warning to others to toe the line. More likely, they are lenient in case they too may fall foul and suffer the consequences that may well entail execution, confiscation of all belongings, and expulsion, just to assuage offended public opinion. But the public also may be lenient when there are no obvious victims (Larmour 2008, 234). Institutionalized corruption may be so entrenched that nobody gets punished at all for responsibility cannot be identified with any specific individual and sanctions are absent or rare where cultural norms preclude punitive denial of perquisites as in Indonesia (Smith 1971). The wrong-doing may be morally offensive but lawful or just on this side of the law well thought out by the most respected professionals in the business to escape prosecution as seems to be much of the case for those responsible for the 2008 global financial crisis and other corporate wrongdoing (Caiden and Caiden 1977, Caiden, Dwivedi, and Jabbra 2005, Nocera 2011).


Culturally-Based Incentives


Another approach to explain how culture impacts corruption is to look at culturally-based incentives that drive personal choices. According to Robert Merton, “all social systems set cultural goals – objectives - that human actors seek to achieve, as well as approved means to gain them” (Lipset and Lenz 2000, 117). Social systems press those with few resources to seek the dominant goals such as high income or social status. Many who have little access to opportunity will reject the rules of the game and try to succeed through unconventional (criminal or innovative) means. Thus, cultures which stress economic success but offer limited opportunities are more likely to encourage corruption, a finding confirmed by World Value Surveys and Corruption Perception Index data wherein countries like Russia, South Korea and Turkey with high achievement orientation are reputed to be highly corrupt.


But achievement orientation is counter balanced by a country’s ethical system, that is, by the clarity of its ethical norms, the role of authority figures in enforcing those norms, the effectiveness of cultural sanctions, and the tolerance for deviation.  Corruption often presents a dilemma between two ethical claims.


Acting properly is often a matter of reflection and calculation rather than passion –“weighing up”. Some of the calculation involves rehearsing how you will explain or justify what you did – if it comes out. But cultural factors may determine the factors that people take into account, and the weighting they give them (Larmour 2008, 234).


Both a culture’s influence on public policy and its impact on personal motivation need to be studied. Some aspects are more relevant than others, e.g. power distance, perception of power and willingness to participate in public affairs, ease of detecting corruption, and willingness to report corruption. The general social culture does influence individual decision making, organizational cultures, and investigating suspicion of corrupt practices. Authoritarian cultures are likely to discourage challenging one’s superiors, certainly whistleblowing. Likewise, societies dominated by familism are likely to experience nepotism. Four such features are selected for further treatment, namely, power distance, amoral familism, trust, and the distinction between public and private ethics, all of which represent the interface between culture and governance.


1.     Power distance  


Authoritarianism and totalitarianism probably demonstrate the greatest power distance between rulers and ruled. Lord Acton clearly understood the conflict between religious hierarchy and personal autonomy. Gert Hofstede has updated Lord Acton. Wherever might prevails over right, it is understood that inequality puts all individuals in their place, an order that “satisfies people’s need for dependence and gives a sense of security to those in power and to those lower down” (Hofstede 1991, 38). The evil of high power is reflected in the high degree of corruption.


A desire for status consistency is typical for large power distance cultures. In such cultures the powerful are entitled to privileges, and are expected to use their power to increase their wealth. Their status is enhanced by symbolic behavior which makes them look as powerful as possible … Scandals involving persons in power are expected, and so is the fact that they will be covered up. If something goes wrong, the blame goes to people lower down the hierarchy. If it gets too bad, the way to change the system is by replacing those in power with revolution. Most such revolutions fail even if they succeed, because the newly powerful, after some time, repeat the behaviors of their predecessors, in which they are supported by the prevailing values regarding inequality (ibid.).


Obviously, power distance results in suspicion of corruption, hesitancy in identifying the corrupt, and leniency in sanctions. It probably also intensifies success orientation by providing incentives for people of lower status to aspire to higher social status in seeking more prestige and privileges.    


2.     Amoral familism


Amoral familism refers to the mentality that considers it natural to maximize the material, short-run advantages of the family, assuming that all others do likewise (Banfield 1958, 85). It is reflected in (a) lack of interest in the community unless it is in one’s personal advantage; (b) officials concern themselves with public affairs because they are paid to do so; (c) checking on officials is the business only of other officials; (d) concerted action is difficult to achieve or maintain; (e) office holders do not identify with the purposes of their organization and only work no harder than necessary to retain their position; (f) where there is little or no fear of punishment the law will be disregarded; (g) office holders take bribes if they can get away with it; (h) the weak favor a regime that maintains order with a strong hand; (i) inspiration by zeal for public rather than private advantage is regarded as a merely a cover; (j) lack of connection between ideology and concrete behavior in daily relationships; and (k) whatever group is in power is self-serving and corrupt (ibid. 85-104). In short, social obligations are to family, not to good neighborliness.  Community service honors the individual, the family and the community in equal degrees and is rarely anonymous. Public service remains an ideal value rarely realized (Campbell 1989, 336). Amoral familism expresses particularism and “gives rise to corruption, and fosters deviance from norms of universalism and merit” (Lipset and Lenz 2000, 120).


3.     Trust


Generalized trust is universalistic and rests on the foundation of openness rather than personal favoritism or self-interest (Uslaner 2005, 77). In contrast, strategic trust is based on daily experience with specific people and particularized trust puts faith only in people like oneself. So, low generalized trust coupled with high strategic and particularized trust correlates with more corruption. In-group ties sustain corruption as partners are expected to deliver on their promises to keep their vow of silence which is opposite to generalized trust in the larger society. Organized crime penetration of public affairs operates this way but so do many professional public service insiders too. This is at the heart of patron-client relationships where people seek patronage from strategically positioned kinsfolk, friends and protectors, informal networks of acquaintances who can do favors for one another. But such favors entail obligations to repay “on more or less a quid pro quo basis and if not repaid when requested or expected” terminates the relationship (Boissevain 1989, 312). Such networking is possibly the most common form of corruption worldwide. It greases the machinery of governance functioning smoothly and unobtrusively. It strengthens the bonds between rulers and ruled and if this is its aim, it acts advantageously and serves a useful purpose. Social networks fostered by civic associations break down the barriers between bureaucracies and their grassroots clients and promote social stability. In so doing, they aid neglected minorities and others who feel left out in the cold without a voice.



4.     Public versus private ethics


There is a difference between public roles and private interests. Bureaucracy demands a strict distinction. Employees are expected to act without fear or favor, independently and objectively following the official rules of the game without their personal feelings intervening.


Although it is desirable that individuals be personally moral and ethical, the [administrative] system is based on a different set of principles from personal morality, One can say that “the success of the constitutional state is founded on its ability to separate the exercise of power from the moral character of the power holder.” Besides institutional checks and balances that deter the misuse of power, public morality is grounded in the political culture of a society that consists of common norms and attitudes about appropriate behavior in the public realm, and these institutional and cultural rules reinforce each other (Karklins 2005, 101).


This separation of public and private morality requires a political culture that comprises “norms and values that are part of what we call civic culture, the bureaucratic ethos, the ethos of public responsibility, and so on” (Kaminski 2005, 83). As the political culture regulates official conduct, “corruption denotes the process of penetration of private criteria into the public domain”. It is these public civic norms that set corruption apart from mere personal dishonesty and labels corruption to behaviors otherwise justified by private moral standards. Keeping one’s word may be a principle of personal ethics but public ethics requires transparency and full disclosure simply because public leaders, indeed all public employees, are expected to strengthen public respect for public institutions. But this distinction between public and private morality is often blurred in conflicts of interest and too often ignored by those lacking in personal integrity. This failure to separate public from private morality undermines many anti-corruption efforts.


Too often fighting corruption by the playbook (Johnson 2008, 206) fails to appreciate all these complex and complicated cultural elements that sustain corruption. To curb corrupt practices requires a deep appreciation of local community cultures. After all, corruption has plagued societies for thousands of years and is likely to be around for many years to come. There are few easy solutions. The countries that are reputed to be relatively free of corruption, such as Denmark, Finland, and New Zealand, have taken decades to build up personal integrity and responsibility and they still fight a constant battle against the corrupt whose inventiveness seems to be boundless. Corruption is rightly or wrongly blamed for many of the ills of society. Universally people resent it even when they do not know its extent, its price, its distortions, and its many victims. Everyone who wants to know can point out incidents of nepotism, patronage, undeserved favors, bribery, falsification, embezzlement, dishonesty, cheating, organized crime, and so many other instances of corrupt practices in their midst. Corruption is hidden yet it is rare for the evidence to disappear completely just as the corrupt are known if not publicly exposed for what they are, what they do, and how much help they receive.


To put the whole issue into context, there are too many people who gain by corruption or are ambiguous about it because they may lose if it were curbed. For those unable to do anything about corruption and whose voice is drowned out, they have many more important issues more central to their lives to be concerned about from worrying about war to just surviving from day to day in a global society that they do not yet fully comprehend. These victims of corruption, and everyone is a victim whether or not they are aware of it, look to public authorities to take effective action to curb its presence. Far too often it is the lack of personal integrity of those who do know better that blocks progress; they hide behind cultural prejudices that they help to perpetuate. Most galling is the failure of the corrupt and the corrupted to acknowledge their guilt and to have any self-recriminations at all. Indeed, even when they have been found guilty of terrible crimes against humanity or caused so much harm to their many victims, they express no regrets and are proud and boastful of their achievements. They knowingly and intentionally intended to wreck havoc and cause as much damage as they could just like terrorists and murderers. Worse still, is when they are excused and given just a slap on the wrist or a light sentence to resume their misconduct but under better cover this time, knowing how well supported and protected they really are (Guerber, Rajaoplan, and Anand 2011). This way, corruption is perpetuated and the corrupt get off lightly.  And corruption does eventually kill people, its innocent victims.



Tackling Cultural Corruption


The contemporary global society is undoubtedly widening opportunities for corruption, particularly at international level that is spreading its harm to every other level whether or not people are aware of this danger (Rotberg 2009). Once, the vast majority of the world’s population had very few opportunities to indulge in gross corrupt behavior. When they did, it was of a petty kind that benefited them. It could not be branded as being threatening by its motivation or act or consequences. That kind of corruption served them well personally although it might have been unfair, inconsiderate, and uncaring of others. It did not threaten the whole social fabric let alone the world order for it was localized and confined. It was not considered that dysfunctional until resentment of the grosser forms that victimized people boiled over into rebellion, but even that was on a small scale. Today, things are getting out of hand as just one person who could invade the internet can wreak absolute havoc all over the globe, a terrifying possibility. Combating all types of corruption has to be taken quite seriously. As in days of old, people will continue to lie and cheat, sleep on the job, steal, bribe, and take advantage of others. They are imperfect. Not many can throughout their lives live up to the moral standards expected of them. So, petty corruption is always likely to occur as new opportunities arise and more and more get tempted to indulge if they think that they will go undetected.


It has become  more imperative to tackle those types of corruption that most harm the social fabric and cause individuals to lose their moral compass. Answers are being sought for practical measures likely to control the grosser forms of corruption that were identified at the conclusion of the Second World War in the United Nations Charter and since expounded in international forums, treaties, and courts. Research that was once confined just to experts has become available to all-comers via the internet. The continuing revolution in information technology presents abundant knowledge at everyone’s finger tips. For most types of technical corruption, containment is readily at hand. Good governance can be promoted. The same code of ethics can be expected to be followed by everyone in their personal dealings. The rule of law can be applied to all without exception, discrimination, and favoritism. Tracing public monies from disbursement to actual expenditure and receipt becomes much more difficult but it can be done with stubbornness and adequate means and resources to reveal misappropriation and wrongdoing. Openings can be filled by more reliable tests of competence, not by patronage, nepotism, political affiliation, or friendship. Most public business and much private can be conducted transparently in a responsible and accountable manner. All these and other practical measures have long been known.


The current state of the art in combating corruption is readily available. The problem is not so much lack of knowledge of what can and should be done. As in past history, it is in the failure to apply that knowledge largely due to the lack of political will of public leaders to adopt and insist on the requisite measures on the one hand and the unwillingness of the populace to change their outdated habits on the other.


The Importance of Integrity


Character counts and most people given a chance can measure character fairly well although even in this day and age too many villains get too far before their immorality gets revealed far too late. By that time the damage has been done and cannot be rectified. Nobody can pick up the pieces. Corrupt officeholders must previously have shown that they did not know right from wrong or they had already embarked on a career of wrongdoing. Those close to them must at some time have raised doubts about their detectable vices such as infidelity, dishonesty, malevolence, greed,  and reluctance to admit blame.  Human beings are flawed, perhaps even born that way, and socialization fails. Parenting does a poor job. Schooling is inadequate. Peer group pressures foster deviancy. Ambition, greed, avarice, delinquency, and immorality take over. Somewhere along the way, people go astray or are led astray so they lack the self-discipline to resist temptation. They can be brought back into the fold again by incentives and rewards to change their ways or by penalties and punishments to desist from corrupt practices. Many religions believe in repentance and forgiveness and giving sinners a second chance. Both religious and secular authorities emphasize the importance of individual integrity and trustworthiness.


Judith Tendler has illustrated how a working situation could be transformed to discourage misconduct and encourage dedication, devotion, sincerity, voluntarism, initiative, and innovation that brought public admiration and gratitude instead of dissatisfaction (Tendler 1997). In what appeared to be unpromising circumstances, employees demonstrated unusual commitment and dedication, voluntarily redefined their responsibilities and job descriptions, used their greater discretion to live up to the trust placed on them by their clients and responded to closer community monitoring, and bolstered civic society support for good governance. They were assisted by the backing of their employers to take pride in their accomplishments, performance, honesty, accountability, and restoring the reputation of public service as well as fostering the cooperation of self-seeking non-governmental organizations as advocates, monitors, competitors, innovators, representatives, and visionaries. Corruption may not have been eliminated but it was much reduced to tolerable proportions, demonstrating that people will respond when treated with dignity, pride, trust, and decency.


The moral foundations of society are based on personal integrity. The presence of corruption indicates that something has gone morally wrong somewhere. A society has to look into a mirror and examine itself closely to see where the faults might be. It has to restore self-discipline and to build character. Above all, it has to strengthen integrity, both individually and collectively. All too often, integrity is assumed. But little can be taken for granted. If indeed morality is found wanting, measures have to be taken to avoid backsliding both in public and private behavior. The importance of moral teaching and social responsibility cannot be underestimated. As so many moralists point out, token lip-service is virtually irrelevant. It is practice that counts. Without individual conscience, everything else is questionable. Codes of ethics are just worthless words on paper (Caiden 1981, 150). Courses on ethics that do not sink in are empty vessels. Anti-corruption commissions that are themselves corrupt or corrupted or without fangs are useless. Refusal to take social responsibility for one’s actions takes humanity back to Hobbes’s uncivilized state of nature where pure self-interest would reign, a situation feared by those who detect signs that integrity is in decline in the global society where competition to be ahead beggars one’s neighbors and where vision still remains too localized on one’s immediate neighbors. For too many, out of sight is out of mind or unknown strangers are going to have to fend for themselves as best they can simply because there are insufficient reserves to go round ot they cannot reach those in need in time to make much difference.


Many traditional sources of socialization face threats from hollow ideology, crass materialism, saturation advertising, commercialization, and declining spirituality. For example, the family and parenting, education and schooling, voluntarism and public service need strengthening but they are not getting the assistance they need to cope with a fast changing world that challenges loyalty, obedience, and personal choices. Corporate morality is becoming more of an oxymoron with bad apples in bad barrels refusing to take any social responsibility whatsoever leaving that to others. The pied-piper of diversionary self-interest is leading people astray from community interests, looking more inward to self fulfillment and self indulgence than outward to collective well-being, social welfare, altruism, compassion, equity, sensitivity, and public (as opposed to private) values.  Too many professional politicians view office as a sure way to enrichment. Combating corruption has to be firmly based in a solid, coherent, and consistent ethical belief system grounded on personal integrity. Hence, there are siren calls for a moral regeneration or reawakening to strengthen personal character and empower the people not just to combat corruption but also establish a new kind of society with more emphasis on spiritual rewards and a restoration of moral standards at grassroots level that frowns on corruption, roots it out, and insists on clean hands (Mordeno 2010). Such a transformation cannot take place overnight. Too much needs to be done to change so many social institutions, especially the education of the young and the conduct of political affairs, but with firm, persistent intent, success can be achieved within a few generations as has been shown in the countries of Western Europe and their heirs around the globe. This is not a pipe-dream. The more people crowd into cities, the more necessary it becomes for them to behave civilly, respectfully, and properly to avoid chaos.


The Importance of Moral Leadership


The rot really does begin more at the top than the bottom whenever corrupt officials betray their trust (Friedrich 1972, 141).  Leaders who set a bad example to their followers or demoralize them court disaster. Doing something about corruption entails convincing leaders to be disciplined enough to minimize their own corrupt practices and immorality. They should be held to a much higher standard of morality than everybody else. They can hardly command respect and obedience if they ask their followers to do what they say not what they do, “that is essentially the cultural gap between what is preached and what is practiced” (Sunder 2011, 247). Maybe at one time they could hide much of what they did within court circles but that has not been the case for many decades and the kind of gross corruption in which they indulged with impunity can no longer be hidden. There are far too many victims and those victims have many relatives, friends, and neighbors with long memories. Leaders set the tone for everybody else. People watch what they do, the standards they expect, and the limits they impose. At the same time, their followers also test how far they can go, what they can get away with, and where any further tolerance or indulgence gives out for this signals the end point for corrupt practices and a sure indictment of the corrupt.


When that point is reached, there can be little excuse or justification for leaders  not to act against corrupt practices, offenders, organizations, and incidents. If they still sit on their hands, they clearly indicate their lack of will to act. If they still question why they should act against their inclinations to offend relatives, friends, partners, associates, or supporters, why they should kill the goose that lays the golden eggs, why they should suffer indignity or lose face through exposure, and what is the point of reaching the top if not to enjoy its benefits and exploit one’s status, position, and power, they are undermining themselves. Admittedly, life is so much more comfortable with all the perquisites that go with office. One need not spoil it for one’s peers as well because they may be ignorant about the extent of corruption and they may not be involved at all. So why rock their boat? But leaders cannot avoid the responsibilities of office and the plea of ignorance holds little water when their duty should be to find out and take preventative action. This obligation comes with the territory certainly once they do know.


This is the message that is or ought to be imparted in all the courses in leadership that are becoming increasingly popular for current leaders and their many aspirants. Know what to do before the test arises as sooner or later it is bound to occur. The global moral climate appears formally to be changing against corrupt practices and those found guilty of gross misconduct in office. Tomorrow’s public leaders are unlikely to be able to get away with their moral lapses as easily as their predecessors. Their followers are learning very quickly that they are more powerful as a collectivity than ever before if they stand up in unison, remain disciplined and steadfast, and capture the minds and hearts of all who despise immorality and gross corrupt practices. When the public mood turns ugly, leaders who believe they have nothing to fear from the distant mob and are perfectly secure in their august positions so that they can continue to live in style regardless, suddenly discover they are mortal after all. When they find themselves deposed overnight and victims of the mob’s wrath and pent-up anger when revenge is sought, as illustrated by recent uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, it is better to flee in time to a safe haven. Just as all individuals have to look closely into their moral mirrors, so it is imperative their leaders correct their poor conduct before crisis threatens.


The Importance of a Virtuous Civil Society


It used to be that public leaders had more to fear from their internal rivals and outside enemies than popular uprisings. Court politics and invasions, sometimes in collusion, were more menacing than the unlikely possibility of mass revolts, let alone revolution, which could not be suppressed by brute force. The danger of being overrun and conquered could unite all inhabitants even under unpopular leaders against the common enemy. Knowing the consequences of being vanquished, rulers could call on austerity, discipline, and the supreme sacrifice to hold the society together. Defeat was out of the question. Internal struggles for power might not descend into bloody warfare but even when they did, many residents would wait and see which faction was likely to succeed before committing themselves. In the meantime, they would try to keep out of trouble by not provoking corrupt rulers. Civil society would not crumble. It would maintain some sense of law and order even under provocation. Informally, it would do much the same under foreign rule as people quietly went on with their usual business and tried not to offend their imposed rulers who in turn might not want to offend and provoke rebellion. Civil society makes for a quieter if not quiet life all round, more so when the populace participate actively in public affairs, governance, and representative government (Ishiyama 2012).


Civil society encourages people to do things for themselves instead of being totally reliant on the authorities, on elites, on experts, on professionals, on bureaucrats. It is a form of self-help. When all else fails, it comes into its own as people are forced to assist one another, to share, to cooperate, to improvise, to make do, to fall back on their own untapped resources. It is best seen in times of crisis and peril such as warfare, violence, natural disasters, emergencies, breakdowns, accidents, and suchlike, when people come to the obvious needs of the whole community or struggling individuals as illustrated in Japan (Banyan 2011). People are on their best behavior and perform heroic deeds without thought for themselves. This is indeed morality at its highest and blessed is any society with a highly developed virtuous civil society. Its intolerance of corruption is a bulwark against official misbehavior. It does not allow things to get out of hand to threaten the social fabric. It draws a line between acceptable and unacceptable conduct. It appeals to social conscience. It objects to the misuse and abuse of authority. It throws up courageous civic leaders of its own who are prepared to challenge the powers-that-be and remind them when they stray what has to be done to return to the straight and narrow. It abhors dirty hands.


This somewhat fanciful picture has been embraced by observers from Alexis De Tocqueville (1835-40) to Robert Putnam (1993) as being an essential of the democratization process in open societies. It has been somewhat romanticized by ignoring or overlooking the actual operation of authority in those societies, until the latter had cause to question its aptness (Putnam 2000). Was civil society ever so righteous and so influential? Much depended on the circumstances. Non-democratic regimes could be more virtuous and more responsive to their residents while democratic regimes could operate imperiously and overrule the majority of their electorate in practice while still adhering to liberal democratic idealism (Brinkley 2011, Goldstein 2011, Sunder 2011, Yadav 2011).  What worried Robert Putnam was that American citizens were contracting out of civic activities more and more and becoming less and less participative, active, and influential in public affairs. Their passivity was a challenge to the health of civil society.


Outside the United States, welfare states had been noticing that their populations had become increasingly dependent on government services and less self-reliant. What was required was a revitalization of civil society wherein people would take more direct responsibility for themselves and volunteer to provide more community services for and by themselves instead of relying so much on governmental delivery. Ways should also be found to democratize administration and the public given greater opportunities to participate in the actual delivery of public goods and services. If need be, like it or not, people could be forced to fend for themselves if government provision of public services was deliberately reduced or privatized or just cut out altogether as being unnecessary. The excuse of the lack of sufficient public funding could be used by any and every government and by the international community aiding government supply to cut off means much to the same effect.


Meanwhile, in some non-democratic regimes, the younger generation fed-up with decades of poverty, unemployment, and corruption has begun to flex its muscles and take to the streets in protest. It is revitalizing civil society to push for reforms in governance, a dethroning of imperious elites, and the prosecution of the gross corrupt. It takes heart from previous successes in the former Yugoslavia and Soviet Union in the early days of the revolution in information technology to muster local support and galvanize world public opinion. It learns fast from the impact of digitally mobilized protest movements in the democracies (Earl and Kimport 2011) and demands that the people in power take responsibility for their actions and assume full accountability for their rule. These mass movements scare corrupt regimes everywhere lest they too will be replaced. To head off possible revolution, they can cleanse themselves by reducing their corrupt practices in good time or they can brazen things out and defy universal condemnation. There is no guarantee that protest groups will not split asunder and fall apart or that any replacement of corrupt governments will be any better behaved as so often has been the case in the recent past. Today, the revitalized civic society has better instruments on tap to take advantage of its opportunities and seems to be given the benefit of the doubt by free mass media that have greater reach than ever before. The writing on the wall is symbolic of the rising tide of frustration and anger of the have-nots of the world who want a better deal out of life and blame their corrupt leaders for depriving them of the opportunities to improve their lot. They are rediscovering the power of civil society to challenge authority by mobilizing communitarianism, alas not always peacefully or responsibly. When they resort to violence, terror, and hooliganism, they provoke suppression which is backed by the very people they are trying to convince to support their cause who abhor their confrontations and side against them instead. Unless intelligently led and properly disciplined, they either self destruct or get wiped out.  


The Importance of Moral Courage


To stand up against authority requires moral courage as always when putting moral values above self-service. “(K)nowing the right thing to do is not the same as doing the right thing” (Comer and Vega 2011, xv). It is not easy to confront repressive leaders, the enthusiasm of their supporters, and the apathy of one’s conservative and scared peers who want only to be left alone in peaceful bliss. Nor is it easy to get others to rally to one’s cause and turn the indifferent into activism. One has at first to work on one’s own under cover led on only by the courage of one’s convictions until one finds equally courageous partners. It is heavy going swimming against the tide. “Moral courage is the fuel that helps us to do the right thing, even when it is painful and when there will be no accolades awaiting us at the end of the day” (Pava 2011, x). Societal, community, and organizational pressures to go along with misconduct can be quite overwhelming. But brave individuals resist and stand out from the crowd. In so doing, they are misinterpreted, misunderstood, and maligned. When all too often they come to harm, others who might emulate them get discouraged and remain in the shadows until stirred by another moral activist. Nonetheless, crusaders against corruption remain undeterred but by exposing themselves they become vulnerable to suppression.


Yet the same moral activism may be hidden behind a veneer of conformity and passivity until the right opportunity presents itself. When individuals believe that the time has come to make a real difference, they show their true colors. They rise to the front and take the lead in showing that misconduct can be tackled and can in time and with confidence be overcome. At last, they have the requisite authority to combat corruption and to transform public administration, to insist on good governance, to prosecute organized crime, to do away with cronyism, to protect the public purse, and to foster public service. Again, they may proceed quietly by persuasion or decide to act aggressively to imprint on the public mind that there will be no going back, no compromises, no gradualism. Their message is clear without any ambiguity and hesitation when presented with the full force of their personality. Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew is a prime example of moral leadership from above until a younger generation thought him too puritanical. By contrast, other like-minded reform advocates on taking power lose their moral courage by being corrupted by their new found authority or enjoy the fruits of position too much or find that exercising and retaining authority is far different from attaining it. Realpolitick takes over.


Genuine whistleblowers who do demonstrate moral courage need to be encouraged and protected because they resent the harm that emanates from misconduct. They feel the pain of the victims of corruption. They want to expose that pain and the dirty hands that cause it. They do not seek recognition or rewards although that might compensate for the ridicule and suffering they experience as whistleblowers. They feel impelled to expose misbehavior and to encourage fellow observers to join them in speaking out and refusing to go along with wrongdoing. If they are disgruntled, it is for good reason. Their complaints should have been immediately investigated not ignored and left to fester ill-will. The work place is by no means the only place to start as wrongdoing can be found from the womb to the tomb. Whistleblowers protect those unable to protect themselves and complaint agencies can see that wrong is put right again. Moral peers and moral leaders understand this and morally courageous coalitions can move mountains (Comer and Vega 2011, 215).     


One serious handicap to combating all forms of corruption, including its cultural dimensions, is the lack of moral courage at international level. There was the expectation with the creation of the United Nations that the moral climate of conducting international relations would change. If it has, that is hardly noticeable. International organizations that were established to transform the moral climate have not done so. Member states continue to be self-interested and ignore international condemnation when it suits them. They fashion wondrous resolutions which they have little intention of following when it does not suit them to do so and few means of making them follow through. Likewise, much international business, freed from state controls, ignores any international constraints. The international bodies set up to protect and expand human rights contain some of the world’s worst offenders while some international non-governmental organizations tasked with humanitarian relief skim off aid they are supposed to distribute. International traffickers in all kinds of illicit goods and services, from armaments to protected animals, from narcotics to children, operate openly and with impunity, protected by governments, law enforcement, professionals, and their influential clients (Keefe 2010).  The international civil service has been corrupted and the way they administer their affairs is a disgrace by any standard thereby virtually institutionalizing their corrupt practices.


            (T)he peace of the world is systematically compromised by corruption that facilitates the

            possible proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; that assists the spread of terror and

terroristic practices; and that strengthens the malefactors who traffic illicitly in humans, guns, and drugs, and who launder money. Corrupt practices undercut noble international efforts to improve the health, educational attainments , welfare, prosperity, and human rights of the inhabitants of the troubled planet. No arena of human endeavor is now immune from the destructive result of corruption… numerous areas of the globe … are now controlled by criminals and criminalized states whose entire focus is the promotion of corruption. (Rothberg 2009, 2)


The Importance of Choosing the Right Targets


For the technocrats confining their vision to a particular corrupt practice, their target is obvious. Tackling cultural forms of corruption is so more difficult, ambiguous, and comprehensive. Even if progress is made, it is so easy to slip back. The corrupt-minded are ingenious at out-witting their opponents. When they do evade capture, they are soon emulated by others who also fancy their chances of escaping detection. Their seekers get discouraged and eventually admit defeat. The chase seems hopeless when the public loses interest as in time it does or when the public actually sides with the corrupt or worst of all the chasers join the chased. If there has to be a place to start, it has to be where success is the likeliest for one small success can be the start of an effective momentum that builds on itself. Research has now developed sufficient capability to find out what upsets the public the most and that is likely to differ from one locality to another. So where is the most consensus and where is public support likely to be the most forthcoming, which authorities are willing to openly declare their support and contribute to a reform campaign, and where are the reformers and their implementable reforms? What groundwork has to be prepared beforehand? Will one reform inevitably compel other reforms? Are the reformers really serious and committed and are they in a strong enough position to overcome resistance?


When it comes to the cultural dimensions of corruption, nothing obvious or simple is likely to work or else that would have been tried already. Revolution, totalitarianism, foreign conquest, military rule, and genocide have all been tried and have failed to overcome cultural corruption and may have worsen the condition. Here again research has a role in identifying where cultural reform has succeeded in the short  run and better still over the longer run. Can the lessons learnt be applied elsewhere and how do they need to be adapted to different circumstances?  Beliefs and values have changed in the past and they continue to change. There is no cause to be pessimistic that corruption cannot be overcome. The obstacles are daunting. There are higher priorities that compel urgent attention and demand prior action. But choosing the wrong targets accomplishes little or nothing and may damage prospects for reform. Clearly  peacefully removing corrupt leaders from office works providing they are not replaced by worse offenders as will diminishing the rewards of corruption. The rule of reasonable law works providing there are few legitimate exemptions and the law enforcement authorities recognize that no-one is above or beyond the law. Responsible and accountable competent administrators are precious when open to criticism and complaint and do act when wrongdoing is discovered. Conflicts of interest can be identified and reduced whenever self-interest endangers public values. All these and many other provisions do eventually constitute an accumulator effect to change people’s ethical thinking and conduct to delegitimize corruption.


So, we turn full circle back to the development of ethical public officials with a social conscience and back to the emphasis on models of morality for society rising above individualism, making sacrifices to serve their communities, stressing the “caring” dimension of their responsibilities, setting the highest standards of moral conduct, and demonstrating integrity, honesty, fairness, and justice, just incorruptible and willing to “reverse the tide of an ‘ethical deficit’” in their societies (Dwivedi 2011, 11). They know that systemic corruption is embedded in the cultural software of their countries and the international system which tolerates and encourages wrongdoing and abuse and where there is little shared vision, commitment, responsibility, and pride, and less concern about freely spending other people’s money.


To control the tide of over-all corruption among all nations, there is an absolute need not only to strength the moral resolve towards good governance but also to appreciate pragmatic ethical values so that people in all the professions would act morally and ethically. By doing that, there might emerge the needed shift in global consciousness and universal collectivity…We need to honour [incorruptible public administrators] so that they act as mentors and role models in sustaining the ideals of service to humanity, which is the highest duty of a person in any society and in any culture. (Ibid., 14)


Now we are almost back to where we started, more appreciative why corruption is such a hard nut to crack and why it is so frustrating for those who wish to take it on.


A Final Comment


It is a puzzle why opinions about corruption in general differ so widely in the same community and about the specific forms it takes. People angry at religious corruption can be quite tolerant of economic corruption and vice versa. Similarly, people quite tolerant of greasing palms and jumping lines can be upset over fixed elections and bribed officials. Such variety is attributed to cultural factors when closer examination may show little or no such bearing at all (Charron 2010). Researchers conducting quasi-scientific inquiries select their evidence to verify whatever they set out to prove about this or that political regime, economic system, or religious order in a very convincing manner. Any conclusion is feasible and any generalization is supportable although more universalistic approaches like those being conducted currently by such authorities as Transparency International and the World Bank seem increasingly to be ruling out exceptional circumstances.


More important is how cultural factors weaken political will to act against corruption. It takes exceptional political courage to overcome cultural resistance rather than take the path of easy compromise. Too many political careers are frustrated challenging religious hypocrisy, ethnic discrimination and hatred, economic greed, social envy, and the arrogance of power holders. Taking a principled stand is never that easy as Aristotelian ethics bow to Machiavellian Realpolitick. It takes integrity to stand up for right over wrong, to protect the weak against the strong, to seek justice and equity for the many over the privileges and elitism of the few, and to expose and criticize the rationalizations and self-justifications of the corrupt. Yet, public leaders do take on the challenge and show that situations can be transformed, that higher standards of public conduct and trustworthiness can be achieved, and that constant vigilance can be maintained to prevent any return when corruption was a way of life rather than just an incidental fact of life (Quah, 2010).


There are always likely to be cultural factors that present challenges to the moral conduct of public business just as there are likely to be ideological, institutional, and humanitarian safeguards upholding public leaders who seek to improve the ways in which public business is conducted virtuously. The upgrading of countries on the global indices of integrity confirm this just as the downgrading of other countries shows how quickly they can fall out of favor with the international community when scandals expose their vulnerability to corruption.


Corruption is less a condition of human nature than a variable, created by structures which can be and sometimes are changed, and influenced by changing societal norms. There is also a dynamic in which it becomes so extreme that it forces some action to curtail it. It becomes public, blatant, and not only irritating, but shakes the foundation of stability, forcing change, sometimes regime change, and sometimes changes in enforcement of anti-corruption provisions. Corruption is thus not a given, not so much a feature of human nature, or a necessity of living together, but a variable , with a variety of sources, something that grows and shrinks, that can be minimized or maximized, and utterly fascinating to watch in someone else’s back yard. (Rubin 2011)   


Clearly, somewhere in all this there is in people’s minds collectively some point where acceptable corruption turns unacceptable when their patience gives out and they take to the streets regardless. Modern information technology is empowering them by informing them of widespread discontent and enabling them to band together to oppose their corrupt oppressors. Times indeed are changing. Even so, corruption is a particularly viral form of cancer. It is caught here and there but it reappears somewhere else as soon as vigilance is relaxed. It is not eliminated, just driven underground. The corrupt merely suspend their operations temporarily. It lingers, hovering always in the background for its next opportunity.






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New York: Oxford University Press.

(c) Copyright Gerald E. Caiden
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Gerald E. Caiden

Gerald E. Caiden

Biographical Sketch

Gerald Caiden, Ph.D., has research and teaching interests in several areas of public administration, notably comparative and development administration, administrative theory, and the study of maladministration and bureaupathology. He is responsible for over 29 books and over 270 academic articles on diverse topics, such as administrative corruption, public accountability, auditing, ombudsman, public service ethics, comparative administrative cultures, and public management systems. He is best known for his pioneering studies in administrative reform, organizational diagnosis, ombudsman, comparative corruption, and public sector innovations. Among his more recent books are Administrative Ethics (Fudan University Press, 2003), Administrative Reform Comes of Age (Walter de Gruyter, Berlin 1991), A Dragon's Progress: Readings in Korean Development Administration (Kumarian Press, 1991), Development: A Reader (Human Resources Institute 1988), The Economics and Politics of Organized Crime(Lexington Books, 1984), A Select Bibliography of American Public Administration (Garland Press, 1983), An International Handbook of Ombudsman (Greenwood Press, 1983), Public Administration (Palisades Press, 1982), and Strategies for Administrative Reform (Lexington Books, 1982). He was editor of The International Journal of Technical Cooperation (London, 1995-1999). He is currently a member of the U.N. Panel of Experts in Public Administration and Development since 1994. He won the USC Mellon Foundation Award for Excellence in Mentoring for the 2005-2006 academic year.



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