Benjamin Bestgen: Corruption

Benjamin Bestgen: Corruption

Benjamin Bestgen

Benjamin Bestgen takes a philosophical look at corruption.

In November 2021, Prime Minister Boris Johnson felt the need to tell the world’s media at the COP26 conference that the UK was not remotely a corrupt country. The PM took this step as both he personally and his Tory party are, not for the first time in its history, embroiled in scandals around potentially corrupt practices. Deeds several Conservative politicians stand accused of include:

  • privileged access to ministers and senior officials for high-value donors of the Tory party; 
  • paid legislative lobbying on behalf of private companies and special interest groups;
  • “cash for honours”: where high-value donors of the party are rewarded with peerages and other public honours, including seats in the House of Lords;  
  • politicians accepting or requesting lavish hospitality or other benefits from private third parties, such as home improvements or luxury holidays being paid for, in return for a favourable personal relationship; 
  • privileged allocation of lucrative public contracts to friends, business contacts and financial backers of certain politicians;
  • politicians using their powerful position and networks to obtain well-remunerated second jobs, possibly at the expense of their duties as elected officials.

When confronted, the political action of Mr Johnson and senior Tories was not to apologise, generate transparency, punish the offenders and make reparations. On the contrary, they engaged in spin, denials, obfuscation and even undertook formal steps to disable the very rules designed to curb corruption and undue influence in parliamentary politics.

It took concerted outrage and sustained pressure across the media before some half-hearted apologies were delivered. But even then, Mr Johnson could not resist blaming the media for focussing on the wrong things (i.e. his own and various MPs’ alleged or actual wrongdoing) instead of whatever he would have preferred them to focus on.

What to make of the PM’s claim?

In one sense, Mr Johnson was right with his COP26 comment: the UK ranks with a transparency score of 77/100 on spot 11 out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s 2020 “Corruption Perception Index”. It is thereby amongst the least corrupt countries in international comparison.

Indeed, very few people in the UK would ever have paid a bribe to a police officer, teacher, judge, businessperson or city councillor in return for preferential treatment, goods or services. It is likewise culturally uncommon for British people to think that the payment of a bribe would be expected or necessary for somebody to do their job properly.

On the other hand, corruption is not limited to bribery. Abuse of authority, perjury, cheating, embezzlement, cronyism, nepotism and other kinds of “special favour & privilege systems” are all examples of potentially corrupt behaviour. Additionally, corruption can affect particular persons, industries or institutions more than others.

Only because corruption is not widespread in UK society at large doesn’t mean there aren’t particular industries, institutions, or parties more vulnerable or prone to corrupt practices than others.

A slippery concept

Philosopher Seumas Miller finds that once you think about it, corruption can be tricky to define. Bribery of politicians and other public officials for private gain is only one type of corruption.

But what about a sports coach who dopes her athletes, thereby corrupting a sporting competition and possibly the moral integrity of individual athletes? Or a senior manager disproportionately giving the most interesting or rewarding jobs to his friends and favourite colleagues, thereby corrupting frameworks of meritocracy and equal opportunities in the company?

Corruption is also not necessarily economically driven. Consider:

  • a witness corrupting the legal process by fabricating evidence or perjuring themselves in court to ensure conviction of somebody they believe to be guilty (or conversely, ensure the freedom of somebody they believe to be innocent);
  • an academic plagiarising work to increase his reputation, corrupting institutional standards of honest research;
  • a person manipulating electoral ballots to ensure their favourite candidate wins, even if the manipulator will receive no obvious or certain gain from the outcome of the election.

Furthermore, while many cases of corruption involve dishonesty or illegal acts, not all corrupt practices are unlawful: 

  • just follow the history of the OECD Convention on Combating Bribery of Foreign Public Officials in International Business Transactions. Even into the 1990s and early 2000s, some countries still had carve-outs in their laws that permitted or tolerated bribes, facilitation payments, lavish hospitality or vague “consultancy fees” paid by domestic enterprises to foreign officials to obtain business contracts. Some countries even allowed for such payments to be tax deductible.
  • Similarly, favouritism in businesses and academia, “old boys/girls” roping each other into plum jobs or donations to political parties and concerted lobbying of politicians is often perfectly lawful but the potential for corruption is significant.

So, what is corruption?

Miller states that corruption is fundamentally a moral concept, not a legal one. Sifting through existing research on the subject, he proposes that both persons and institutions can be corrupted and be corrupt. As a rough working definition, it might be summarised that

  • Something or someone is corrupt if they undermine, destabilise, erode or despoil the defining moral virtues of a person or the proper functioning of an institution pursuing a collective good and replace them over time with moral vices which diminish, distort or destroy that good character or institutional functioning. 

For personal corruption, Miller gives examples of an honest accountant, who begins cooking the books of certain clients under the pressure of a corrupt manager and a personal desire to maintain a high salary which necessitates him continuing this work. He despoils his moral quality of being an honest professional. Or consider a brave and impartial investigator who might start to accept bribes from certain criminals, turning into a dishonest, biased and cowardly individual. 

Institutional corruption occurs where institutional purposes, frameworks, processes or persons holding office in an institution are undermined, eroded or despoiled so the institution no longer serves or represents the social good which it exists to serve or represent. For example:

  • If witnesses perjure themselves in court, politicians preferentially grant business contracts to their friends or surveyors accept bribes to manipulate planning applications, the judicial, tender & licensing or planning process cannot function as it ought to. The perjury, favouritism or bribery in these instances are all ways in which institutions can be corrupted.
  • Similarly, political philosopher Dennis F. Thompson states that institutional corruption is also established where officials act under conditions that tend to create improper influence, even where the official herself has no improper motive and doesn’t intent impropriety. Classic examples are laws and regulations enabling political donations, campaign finance and lobbying of public officials by wealthy persons, corporations and special interest groups. These rules and actions make politicians dependent on or beholden to these donors at the expense of other parts of the electorate who do not enjoy such influential and material ties to officials.

Johnson’s claim revisited

It can still be said that the UK itself is not generally a corrupt country. However, looking at the Tory party and its widely published actions, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that irrespective of the legal analysis in each case, at least morally speaking:

  • Mr Johnson and several other Tory politicians and various people affiliated with them are very likely corrupt persons; and
  • the Tory party and various people and organisations affiliated with it are likely responsible for corrupt actions which undermine and despoil public institutions and frameworks by twisting them in their own favour at the expense of British society at large.

Author’s note: This article is a philosophical reflection on Mr Johnson’s claims about corruption in the United Kingdom. It is not intended as “anti-Tory” political writing – it just so happens that the people and organisations accused of sleaze and corruption in this instance are predominantly Tories. My own political leanings are utterly irrelevant in this context.

Benjamin Bestgen is a solicitor and notary public (qualified in Scotland). He also holds a Master of Arts degree in philosophy and tutored in practical philosophy and jurisprudence at the Goethe Universität Frankfurt am Main and the University of Edinburgh.

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