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Tolerating corruption

‘Corruption’ is notoriously difficult to define, and approaches to its definition differ significantly from one field of enquiry to another. Law-makers, economists, political scientists, sociologists, anthropologists and others all differ both in their reasons for thinking about it, and in the frameworks through which they analyse it.

After reading Bo Rothstein and Aiysha Varraich’s (2017) book Making Sense of Corruption, I now realise that my own vague thinking about corruption is most obviously aligned with an anthropological approach. I’ve always rather suspected that the whole concept/accusation of corruption is based on Western liberal assumptions, and wondered if it might be more productively understood by thinking in more context-specific ways. Instead of developing corruption indices which end up producing data showing that non-Western countries are ‘more corrupt’ than Western ones, perhaps instead we should begin by interpreting things like paternalism, bribery, private influence over regulation, etc, as variously embedded in, or departing from, existing local systems of reciprocity.  (I rambled on in a previous post about this.) However, this relativistic approach to corruption is challenged by a couple of interesting arguments in Rothstein & Varraich’s book:

(1) anthropologists (who have tended to take a relativistic position) may often deliberately avoid making strong normative claims about the deleterious effects of related practices because they are constrained by their own codes of research ethics. They take care to make sure that the subjects of their research should not be endangered by published findings and conclusions.

(2) levels of public concern over particular ‘corrupt’ practices are pretty similar around the world.  This is the case even where people have little practical choice but to behave in corrupt ways.  In other words, it’s too simple to see corruption as essentially a Western liberal preoccupation.

But I’m even more interested in their observation that people around the world are generally tolerant of corrupt practices, so long as the outcomes of these are seen to be beneficial to societies or individual citizens.  When political scientists study corruption – and not many have done so until recently – they tend to focus on questions around the workings of democratic institutions, and the qualities of democratic rights (ie what is known as ‘input legitimacy’). Most normal people, conversely, do care about corruption, but only really to the extent that it seems to impinge on their own, or their society’s, well-being (‘output legitimacy’).  We are happy enough, for example, to have use of a new railway station or bridge, even though the process through which it was implemented contradicted every ideal of ‘good governance’ in the book.  Nobody asks too many questions about input legitimacy when GDP is rapidly rising, and schools and hospitals are being built.  The Mayor might be a bit dodgy, but we like him because he gets the job done.

The tendency for output legitimacy to trump input legitimacy reflects one explanation that Kroeber (2016) gives for why the Chinese government remained firmly in charge in the 1990s, even though other ‘communist’ governments had fallen one after another. Gorbachev’s starting point was to improve the transparency of Russia’s governing institutions – but this only weakened his hand when the economy continued to collapse. China, on the other hand, focused on economic outcomes rather than democratic reform.

Recognising this also paves the way for a more generous and nuanced understanding of situations where corruption appears to be present at all levels of society. The implication should not be that corruption meets with normative approval within that society, but rather that the corruption of abstract democratic ideals is tolerated when the system nevertheless produces what is seen on balance to be a degree of societal advancement.

London, 1 April 2018.


Rothstein, B. & Varraich, A. (2017). Making Sense of Corruption. Cambridge: CUP.

Kroeber, A.R. (2016). Understanding China’s Economy: What Everyone Needs to Know. Oxford: OUP.




Amsterdam Schiphol airport doesn’t currently have its taxi facilities under control.  The fare into town is around €50, so it makes sense for most people to take public transport anyway.  But if, for whatever reason, you need to take a taxi, you have to enter a den of lions.

Apparently, the problem is that the taxi rank is located in ‘public space’ outside the airport (Jan Dellaert Square). The courts have ruled that it is perfectly legal for non-official taxis to ply their trade there.  Three or four taxi companies have licenses to operate from the airport: the others have to hassle people to attract custom.  And the non-official taxis apparently include some entirely unlicensed cars.  There are plenty of stories around of people being ripped off.

The authorities have at least managed to ban hustlers from inside the airport, and have set up an ‘official taxi stand’ outside, with lots of signs, regular (muffled) announcements about not taking an unofficial taxi, and has quite a few stewards outside with special yellow jackets on, directing people to the official stand. However, the unlicensed drivers also now wear the same jackets – there is nothing to stop them doing so. And, even in the official zone, people wearing fake official jackets continue to hassle you.  I decided I would take the bus instead.

Anyway, I thought all this was a good example of how conceptualising public space in overly normative ways may lead to practical problems.  A rather blanket ideal appears to have been legally enshrined, and used to determine what is permitted in this space.  But as a normative concept or ideal, public space – rather like the ideal of free speech – seems to fall apart at the seams when it is applied to reality. For me, public space makes rather more sense as an analytical category – or, more precisely, as a way of thinking about how spaces are differently public, and how this publicness is variously produced in different places and at different times.


Amsterdam, 22 January 2017

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