For evidence that human beings are all essentially identical in make-up and temperament, I invite you to conduct a poll asking 100 randomly sampled individuals across the globe the following question: is corruption in government a pressing issue that we should be doing more to address? The answer for all individuals, though perhaps not publicly if anyone polled is a politician, will likely be yes. But the pressing nature of the issue and attention directed towards addressing it has never manifested in the development of a common solution. Frameworks and objectives exist; groups and organizations committed towards attacking corruption in government understand there are fundamental pillars that allow for the development of informal (or formal) structures of misconduct. But there is no silver bullet to fighting corruption. Which, frankly, seems odd – formal elections this year are being held in Russia, Mexico, Italy, Brazil, the Czech Republic, the DRC, Egypt and Colombia, just to name a few, and corruption is a noted agenda item on the minds of each and every voter. So if this is such a common cause, why has a common solution never been found?
For one, corruption is pervasive: found in every nation throughout the globe, both formally and informally across all levels of society. And corruption can take many forms: explicitly accepting or soliciting bribes is one more obvious way, a method used by individual policeman on the sides of highways and national governments overseeing resource extraction rights contracts. But corruption is defined as an abuse of entrusted power for private gain; it can be grand, which constitutes distorting policy to benefit the current administration or its allies, petty, which constitutes the everyday abuse of entrusted power of officials towards everyday citizens, or political, wherein institutions and procedures are manipulated to sustain power, status or wealth. But is the manipulation of an institution for personal gain easily differentiated from enacting fiscal policies that benefit the already privileged in society? Is petty corruption, actions on the local-level, easy to differentiate if it is so entrenched that it reflects an entire institutionally corrupt system? Where does one draw lines between methods and forms, and what constitutes explicit corruption versus ideological or partisan shifts? If the line we can note is an explicit admission of intention, then one who looks for it may encounter a rancorous defense of self in the form of the political double-speak deployed by any and all administrations, at which point the reality that the definition of corruption is more subjective than once thought is worrisome in itself; if we can’t even define what corruption is, how can we know when it’s happening?
Organizations such as Transparency International understand this complexity, and take a view that tackling corruption is less about drawing explicit or objective lines in the sand, and more about ensuring institutions follow procedures that make their actions and the consequences of those actions explicit, clear and enforceable. If corruption occurs, the electorate must be able to hold those in power accountable. Effective law enforcement, strengthening the role of auditing agencies, promoting transparency in decision-making, empowering citizens to engage in active democracy and the closing of international loopholes are all proven methods of tackling issues. But each holds the uncomfortable reality of being equally vague: yes, effective law enforcement is pivotal to a functioning society. But how does one address corruption in law enforcement itself? Or if laws and policies are not explicit or binding enough to dissuade inaction, what can one do to pressure a corrupt institution to better police itself?
This speaks to a fundamental issue often not explicitly said: tackling corruption is not a rational activity for an administration, unless they are explicitly newly-elected on a mandate of doing just that. Rational activities involve a codified understanding of the problem to be solved (which is difficult if definitions vary, or if only a specific incident of corruption is focused upon), evaluating any alternatives selected (where eliminating the bias of the powerful to prompt action against their own self-interest can be tricky) and implementing such solutions. An administration may come into power seeking to address corruption in the health sector that has resulted in high drug costs for citizens; without every actor working in coordination, the actual implementation of such policies will not have the desired impacts. Loopholes will be found. Or, if the problem is holistically addressed but corruption in importing drugs is still pervasive, firms may be priced out of the market entirely and tackling corruption will have become an economic disaster for an entire domestic industry.
Because of these ingrained issues, and the fundamental nature of it in the daily lives of every citizen, corruption never really goes away. It may fade temporarily, or adapt to new circumstances, but there is a reason why every election across the globe, often for generations on end, claims that it will tackle and banish this issue for good. There is also a reason why candidates seeking offices they have yet to hold can make these claims, then find themselves fending them off from the next version of themselves in the subsequent campaign. To truly address corruption, we may need to admit that it is far more present and pervasive than we care to admit – then we must take care to evaluate whether the words of one individual who claims to solve all our problems can be believed when the very flow of human civilization points to the opposite.