Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


We should “rethink corruption”

Lucio Picci

Have we reached a plateau in our understanding of corruption? I believe so. It’s time to push the boundaries of this discourse, moving what is currently at the periphery of the debate to the forefront of our discussions. In my new book, I urge readers to challenge the prevailing notions of corruption that have dominated academic discourse and policy agendas for decades.

            Why should we rethink corruption? Because corruption is not just a peripheral issue; it lies at the heart of political and societal dynamics in many different ways. But conventional wisdom on corruption has failed us. Shaped largely by economists since the late 1970s, it has focused on identifying corruption, measuring it, and prescribing solutions to combat it. Terms like “compliance” have become buzzwords in corporate circles, reflecting the emphasis on anti-corruption measures. At a higher level, countries have also been called to “comply” with blueprints of anti-corruption reform. However, despite decades of effort, the fight against corruption has largely failed to produce significant results worldwide. I argue that this failure is, in part, due to our neglect of two crucial points: first, that corruption serves as a tool of government, enabling political elites to maintain control and implement policies; and second, that anti-corruption efforts are themselves political tools, often wielded by politicians to advance their agendas.

            Certainly, these points have not been absent from current analyses, but they have mostly represented side issues placed at the fringe of the debate. I argue that instead they should be placed at center stage. To illustrate these points, I take readers on a global tour, with in-depth examinations of three countries: Brazil, Russia, and the United States. In Brazil, we witness a hopeful anti-corruption crusade that turned sour and led to the rise of Jair Bolsonaro, an unlikely anti-corruption crusader, to the presidency. In Russia, we navigate through the most recent tumultuous decades, when corruption perversely served as an indispensable tool to hold the system together – and, tragically, to guarantee elite consensus for the invasion of Ukraine. In the United States, we explore broader definitions of corruption that may be legal, corresponding to a betrayal of widely held preconceptions, such as a belief in the “American dream.”            

But this journey is not only in geographical space; it also traverses disciplinary boundaries. While much attention has been devoted to quantifying corruption, I offer a nuanced perspective by examining how these measures have shaped our understanding of corruption itself. By shining a light on this interplay between measurement and perception, I aim to challenge entrenched views and provoke new insights into the nature of corruption. I present a critique of quantitative methods as they have been applied to the study of corruption, and I propose a multidisciplinary analysis straddling political science, economics, sociology, and even philosophy. The philosophical concept of an “essentially contested concept” is relevant, I argue, to our study. Corruption is a concept that we will never conclusively define because its endless contestation is part of what it is: again, as a tool of government and as a tool of politics. Returning to these two main messages, I would like to come full circle also in terms of the general invitation that my book proposes: Let’s rethink corruption together. Let’s challenge the status quo, question conventional wisdom, and explore new avenues for understanding and addressing corruption in our world today.

Rethinking Corruption by Lucio Picci

About The Author

Lucio Picci

Lucio Picci is Professor of Economics at the University of Bologna. He has written three books and published articles in the American Journal of Political Science, the Review of Ec...

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