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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 May 2019

Mark Philp*
History and Politics, University of Warwick


This essay challenges conceptions of political corruption that rely on standards external to politics and explores an understanding of corruption as something that is part of the internal policing of politics. The essay draws attention to the multiple, conflicting ideas and principles that contribute to our understanding of corruption but argues that these often generate over-moralized and over-generalized claims and can become corrosive of the compromises and procedures that are central to political rule. The essay shows that recent accounts of political corruption often have highly attenuated understandings of “politics” and are over-expansive in their normative commitments, and argues that how we understand and talk about the corruption of politics is of major significance for the stability and effectiveness of the political orders of Western societies.

Research Article
Copyright © Social Philosophy and Policy Foundation 2019 

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An early version of the essay published here was given as a Max Weber Lecture at the EUI, Florence, May 2017.


1 Plato, Republic, trans., Grube and Reeve (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1997) 589c-d.

2 The multi-headed monster is common trope in caricature representations of corruption: for example, “The champions of reform destroying the monster of corruption” (George Humphrey, 1831), “The Champion of Oakhampton, attacking the hydra of Gloucester Place” (Thomas Tegg, 1809) or “Dispute between Monopoly and Power, from The Satirist” (William Henry Brooke, 1813).

3 See, for example, Krueger, Anne, The Political Economy of the Rent-Seeking Society,” American Economic Review 64, no. 3 (1974): 291303Google Scholar.

4 Pettit, Philip, Republicanism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 210–18.Google Scholar

5 See Thompson, Dennis, Ethics in Congress (Washington, DC: Brookings Institute, 1995)Google Scholar; Laurence Lessig, Republic Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress—and a Plan to Stop It (Boston: Hachette, 2011) and “‘Institutional Corruption’ Defined,” Journal of Law, Medicine, and Ethics 41, no. 3 (2013): 553–55; Seamus Miller, “Corruption,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta (Feb 2, 2011); and the essay by Daniel Weinstock in this volume. For criticisms of this approach, see Philp, Mark and David-Barrett, E., “Realism about Political Corruption,” Annual Review of Political Science 18 (2015): 387402CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Maria Paola Ferretti in this volume.

6 See most famously Bernard Williams, In the Beginning Was the Deed (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005) and Raymond Geuss, Philosophy and Real Politics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009). See also Galston, William, “Realism in Political Theory,” European Journal of Political Theory 9, no. 4 (2010): 385411CrossRefGoogle Scholar and my “Realism without Illusions,” Political Theory 40, no. 5 (2012): 629–49.

7 Indeed the boundaries of the political are themselves variable, locally policed, and unstable. See, for example, Candea, Matei, “‘Our Division of the Universe’ Making a Space for the Non-Political in the Anthropology of Politics,” Current Anthropology 52, no. 3 (2011): 309334CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

8 Williams, In the Beginning Was the Deed, chap. 1, “Realism and Moralism.”

9 These vary on their degrees of politicization, the training and qualifications required, the character of loyalty demanded, their conditions of service, and the type of legal system in which they operate.

10 Rothstein, Bo, The Quality of Government: Corruption, Social Trust, and Inequality in Institutional Perspective (Chicago, IL: Chicago University Press, 2011).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

11 Finn, Paul, “Official Misconduct,” Criminal Law Journal 2 (1978): 315Google Scholar. “As an official is not permitted to subordinate the positive requirements of his office to his own judgment as to what he should or should not do, he is indictable for any deliberate refusal to discharge any mandatory public duty imposed upon him.”

12 An important component given the extent to which corruption discourse develops in relation to the church in Western Europe (see Mark Knights, in this volume)

13 See CSPL, Standards Matter: A Review of Best Practice in Promoting Good Behaviour in Public Life (London: The Stationary Office of HM Government, 2013); see also my Public Ethics and Political Judgment (London: CSPL, 2014).

14 Hence the considerable divergences in Western political and administrative systems in the exact understandings of what counts as legitimate personal interests, degrees of partisanship, and so on.

15 Or Transparency International’s “the abuse of entrusted authority for private gain,” which allows a dramatically wider remit than public office.

16 Beetham, David, “Moving Beyond a Narrow Definition of Political Corruption,” in Whyte, David, ed., How Corrupt is Britain (London: Pluto Press, 2015), 41CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

17 I set this out fully in “The Definition of Political Corruption,” in Paul Heywood, ed., The Routledge Handbook of Political Corruption (London: Routledge, 2014), 17–29.

18 Almost . . . but perhaps not quite. We can imagine cases where the stronger condemnatory language of “treason” might be used for cases that meet all these conditions.

19 A line common in the 1640s, again in the 1790s, and not unknown today.

20 Rothstein, Bo and Varraich, Aiysha, Making Sense of Corruption (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 50CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

21 This is compatible with the definition by Emanuela Ceva in this collection: “We have political corruption when public officials abuse their entrusted public power for the pursuit of a surreptitious agenda.”

22 This also allows a degree of generality to the idea of politics, while recognizing how important agent perspectives are in constructing an account of the exact way of filling out these details of the account.

23 Bo Rothstein, The Quality of Government.

24 Underkuffler, Laura, Captured by Evil: The Idea of Corruption in Law (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013), 69Google Scholar. See Mario Villareal-Diaz in this volume for a critique of character-based accounts of corruption.

25 Underkuffler, The Idea of Corruption in Law, 243.

26 Zephyr Teachout, Corruption in America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014), and see McCormick, Richard L., “Anti-Corruption in American History,” Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 14 (2015): 441–54CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

27 See Susan Rose-Ackerman, Corruption, and Government: Causes, Consequences and Reform (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999). Many of the contributions to this literature pay lip-service to the difficulties of definition, only to produce a mass of data about “corruption” to allow cross cultural explanations for levels of corruption. See for example, Alina Munui-Pippidi, The Quest for Good Governance: How Societies Develop Control of Corruption (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015). James Ferguson’s comment is pertinent here: “In ‘development’ discourse, the fact that there are no statistics available is no excuse for not presenting statistics, and even made-up numbers are better than none at all.” The Anti-Politics Machine (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1994), 41. On the counterproductive effects of corruption discourse see also Buckley in this volume.

28 Critically assessed in Väyrynen, Pekka, The Lewd, the Rude, and the Nasty: A Study of Thick Ethical Concepts in Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

30 Krastev, I., Shifting Obsessions: Three Essays on the Politics of Anti-Corruption (Budapest: Central European University Press, 2004).Google Scholar

31 Frank Anechiaro and James B. Jacobs, The Pursuit of Absolute Integrity (Chicago, IL: Chicago University Press, 1996) and my “Delimiting Democratic Accountability,” Political Studies 57, no. 1 (2009): 28–53; and “Access, Accountability and Authority: Corruption and the Democratic Process,” Crime, Law and Social Change 36, no. 4 (2001): 357–77.

32 Williams, In the Beginning Was the Deed, 13

33 See, for example, Hine, David and Peele, Gillian, The Regulation of Standards in British Public Life (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2016), chaps. 2–4Google Scholar.

34 Nor, indeed, has there been much work exploring the implications of the variety of regime types and political forms and their varying demands on incumbents.

35 M. de Montaigne, Essays, ed. M. A. Screech (London: Allen Lane, 1991), “On Vanity,” 1121–22.

36 See their respective essays in Hampshire, Stuart, Public and Private Morality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

37 Classically discussed by Max Weber, in Politics as a Vocation as an ethic of responsibility.

38 One symptom of this is how much more we feel let down by them and how little we trust them. Surveys frequently report extremely low levels of trust in politicians—partly because the question used most often is whether people trust them to tell the truth; but also probably because we have high expectations and find feet of clay.

39 See for example, G. Bingham Powell, Jr., Elections as Instruments of Democracy (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000), 47.

40 We can refer to a tradition of thinking about politics in which “decisionist” elements are central, as in the work of Machiavelli, Weber, Schmitt, or Arendt. See my Political Conduct (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 63–68.

41 See, for example, Laurence Lessig, Republic Lost.

42 The attempt to import Western values can be seen in the case of chapter 6 of the Kenyan constitution of 2010, which is full of the language of transparency and accountability but remains untranslated into any of the local languages, which have no equivalents for such terms.

43 Shany Mor, On Representation, (D.Phil thesis, University of Oxford: 2014).

44 Montesquieu, L’Esprit des Lois, XIX (27). Montesquieu says “historians”—I am suggesting “journalists” as a plausible modern translation.