Institutional Corruption

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On the Idea of Institutional Corruption

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Source(s): Institutional Corruption



"Institutional corruption" is the consequence of

an influence
within an economy of influence that
weakens the effectiveness of an institution
especially by
weakening the public trust of the institution.

I would modify the above by stating that corruption may lead to loss of public trust, but loss of trust is not necessarily a component of corruption. In fact, an institution may be highly trusted, but be quite corrupt. Susannah


Corruption is the inappropriate redirection or decay of resources. "Redirection" and "decay" describe a process. Corruption involves a change from a before state to an after state. "Resources" requires something of value to be at stake. "Inappropriate" requires judgment. However, this definition does not require the specification of a particular type of outcome, e.g., weakened public trust, weakened effectiveness, nor beneficiaries or victims, for two reasons. First, including the outcomes in the definition creates difficulty in empirically determining what the outcomes of corruption are. Second, including the outcomes in the definition requires corruption to be studied retrospectively because we need to see "how it ends" before making a determination of corruption. If we use redirection or decay as the signal of corruption, then we can "see" it sooner.

Potential Amendment 1.1 to Lessig Definition?: widespread or systemic practices that undermine the integrity of an institution or public trust in an institution. These practices are usually not illegal and, although they may be the source of serious concern on the part of informed but disinterested third parties, they tend not to be perceived as unethical by most of the actors operating within the relevant institution. The phrase widespread or systemic seeks to capture the concern with institutional rather than individual corruption. Integrity is clearly doing some work in this definition and is not uncontroversial (this idea will be developed further in a workshop in March 2012). However, unlike “effectiveness,” there is no risk that it will encompass administrative inefficiencies. The word or recognizes that there are two different concerns (integrity and public trust). Although both may be present, either may exist independently of the other. This will be particularly important when considering appropriate remedies. (Marks)

Source(s): Institutional Corruption

On defining institutional corruption (Marks)

Within the Lab on Institutional Corruption, we are unlikely to achieve complete consensus on the definition of the term, and we are even less likely to do so outside the Lab. We should strive instead for a workable definition or definitions. It is also worth noting that each proposed definition may work better in some contexts and not so well in others. For example, the Lessig definition may work well where the purpose of an institution cannot be seriously contested; Dennis Thompson’s may offer advantages where the purpose is contested. As the work of the Lab and its critics evolves, there will be some value in mapping the areas of contestation in the definition of institutional corruption—an exercise that will be useful to identify significant areas of agreement as well as disagreements.

Any workable definition needs to be employed together with a variety of examples of (and case studies in) institutional corruption—both paradigm cases and penumbral ones. These cases and the working definition should exist in a relationship of reflective equilibrium, in which each can be used to interrogate the other and to refine our understanding and articulation of the other.

On the language of corruption and the hard disk metaphor (Marks)

It is also worth acknowledging that corruption possesses a certain moral intensity. However, the moral intensity is not a function of the moral opprobrium that attaches to individuals who participate in institutions that have been corrupted. (In this sense, as Lessig has emphasized, institutional corruption can and should be distinguished from individual corruption.) Rather, the language of corruption reflects the significance of the institution for the public good, and the potentially serious consequences that may result if either the institution ceases to serve the public good or if it is perceived as no longer serving the public good.

The corruption of a hard disk on a computer may serve as an illustrative metaphor. If the disk becomes corrupted, the computer will no longer serve its purpose—to reliably store and permit the retrieval of data. The language of corruption in this analogy does not point to the blameworthiness of any individual. Rather, it highlights the significance of the loss of (or damage to) the data. If the data happen to be the only copy of a first novel or of a patient’s medical records, the corruption of the disk will be of intense importance!

The language of institutional corruption is clearly intended to do some work in the world, by signifying the importance of a particular institution and the way that institution is operating. It is a call for attention, and for action (although it does not prescribe the kind of attention or action that should follow). The language of institutional corruption is also useful in that it encompasses issues and concerns that other terms, such as “conflict of interest,” might not.


Some examples are listed here.


Sources are listed here.

Theories of Corruption

Related theories are listed here.

Big Questions

Big unresolved questions, along with working attempts to answer them are listed here.

Committees studying Institutional Corruption