The banality of corruption

At the heart of the exotic and exciting spectacle of National Party luminaries engaging in their own version of the shootout at the OK Corral – and, in so doing, managing to take out one of their own – is a seemingly banal act: the writing of a reference for a friend.

Nevertheless, many commentators seem convinced that at least one, if not both, of the two politically incorrect ‘C’ words applies: ‘Corruption’ and/or ‘Cronyism’.

But isn’t New Zealand perceived as one of the least corrupt societies on the planet? In fact, aren’t we number one ? (Even, for once, ahead of Denmark and Finland!).

Obviously there’s more to this debacle – and to corruption – than immediately meets the eye.

Perhaps it needs to be put in a broader – and subtler – perspective.

Doing things primarily in your own interests – and being proud of so doing – is the mantra of the age. We are exhorted to admire the wheelers and dealers who accumulate personal fortunes for their cleverness in advancing their own self-interest.

Also, the term ‘Tall Poppy’ – strangely enough – tends to be reserved for people who, primarily, have done well for themselves rather than for others.

We have, that is, elevated personal success (i.e., ‘greatness’ – see below) as the pre-eminent raison d’être in life.

In that kind of social soup the temptation to use power to advance self-interest receives an added boost. As the rewards for pursuing self-interest increase – and social sanctions diminish – corrupt uses of power will increasingly become the norm rather than the exception.

They will become ‘normalised’ and simply ‘the way things are’ in a faint echo of Hannah Arendt’s explanation of the operation of evil in Nazi Germany.

In a word, corruption has become ‘banal’ – until, of course, it enters the public world.

It’s worth reflecting on how far we’ve come on this issue, and in what direction.

In April, it will be 125 years since John Acton (Lord Acton) wrote to Mandell Creighton over the proposal, in the Catholic Church, to establish the doctrine of papal infallibility. Acton was against it.

It was in that letter that two of his most quoted comments were penned – one immediately following the other:

I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption it is the other way, against the holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority, still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority.

Power – authority – tends to corrupt those who wield it. But there’s two linked processes here as the second famous quote (“Great men are almost always bad men …”) makes clear. Certainly, power will tend to corrupt but, also, those who achieve ‘greatness’, according to Acton, are overwhelmingly ‘bad men’.

But, of course, the reason for discussing political corruption at the moment is the aftermath of the resignation by Dr Nick Smith from his ministerial portfolios.

Writing a reference for his friend Bronwyn Pullar was the crucial ‘error of judgment’ committed by Dr Smith. At least that’s what almost all commentators appear to agree upon despite John Key claiming that it was the second unearthed letter (actually written and signed earlier than the ‘first’ (reference) letter) that tripped the switch of Smith’s resignation.

But discussion of Dr Smith’s ‘errors of judgment’ and whether or not they amounted to ‘corruption’ or ‘cronyism’ seems to me to have missed a point so obvious, so banal – and so likely – that I think that omission says something significant about just how ‘corrupt’ our everyday responses have become.

The focus of discussion and criticism has been that, by providing the reference, Dr Smith inevitably exerted influence over deliberations that officials within his portfolio of responsibilities were carrying out in relation to one of his friends. As Vernon Small put it:

Her [Bronwyn Pullar’s] ability to work before her accident was clearly a key element in her claim, as ACC saw it. That was the very issue Smith addressed. So if his reference was used to promote her argument, there was an obvious inference he was trying to influence a decision within his own portfolio … it is difficult to see what Smith’s reference would achieve, other than to flex political muscle and indicate she had friends in high places.

Interestingly, the reference and other letter were signed by Dr Smith even though he had apparently, on several occasions refused to go in to bat for Ms Pullar. As Small once again notes:

It is simply gob-smacking that Smith would let his guard down and provide the reference after so staunchly and correctly refusing to intercede on her behalf before.

The question, that is, has been whether or not he helped a friend. But, as Bryce Edwards pointed out:

‘Corruption’ is generally defined in political science as the use of power by government officials or politicians for illegitimate private gain.

“Private gain” – not gain for a friend. So, technically, is it ‘just’ cronyism? As John Armstrong claimed:

It was not as if he was doing it [writing the reference] for any apparent financial or personal gain.

So it wasn’t corruption? Well, look again at that word ‘apparent’.

There is a multitude of ways in which we might personally gain from our actions – not all of them financial. In fact, John Armstrong points out a paragraph or two later the obvious gain for Dr Smith in using the power in the way he did – yet, despite directly describing it, Armstrong seems unaware of the ‘personal gain’ that was most likely involved.

Correspondence released this week shows Smith was perfectly well aware of the conflict of interest. His mistake was to think he could minimise it to a point where people would think it was not that big a deal in the grander context of his contribution as a hard-working minister and MP.

He might get into some minor trouble over it, but it would stop Pullar pestering him to intervene in her case.

It would stop Pullar pestering him.” Now, of course, MPs get ‘pestered’, I imagine, on a reasonably regular basis by many of their constituents and they are not always prone to ‘giving in’ to those constituents.

In this case there may well have been additional factors that bore on how best to deal with the ‘pestering’ just because she was a friend of Dr Smith’s (of whatever kind). Friends are harder to disappoint than others for many reasons. One reason is mentioned by Bryce Edwards (in the link above) when he alludes to the possibility of a particularly emotional entanglement:

Clearly if the relationship was an intimate one, then this might go some way to explaining how Smith might have acted so inappropriately. People don’t always act rationally when strong emotions are involved.

We can ignore the unfortunate counterposing of ‘rationality’ and ‘emotion’ in this way – current research suggests that emotions are, in fact, intrinsically rational and they evolved as means to ‘move us’ to action in settings in which our long evolutionary history has ‘done the thinking for us’. They are a fast – admittedly broad-brush – but certainly rational set of processes.

But, in addition to any emotional element to friendships, we are also often mixed up with them in a complicated set of social and practical mutual obligations and networks that span some years. Friends often know – and can talk to – other people we know, for our good or ill. Friends know details about us that we might not wish others to know. Friends can also be a burden so far as we feel some moral need to commit to the adage ‘a friend in need is a friend indeed’.

Friends, in short, come with risks and responsibilities.

The likely, and most banal, feature of Dr Smith’s actions is that they were certainly done for private gain – just not the gain we might expect (or the gain Dr Smith might prioritise once he views his decisions from a distance – as he seems to have now done). But ‘private gain’ it was.

And this is the point. Dr Smith, like so many others, has used his power to get himself off what can seem, from the outside, to be a very small hook. In some ways, it would have been easier to understand if he stood to gain in a huge way from his actions. The risk would then seem balanced with the potential reward.

But the reward is great, at a personal level. Being the kind of social being that we are, we are most vulnerable to the most (inter)personal of discomforts – that someone close might feel ill of us, that a friend we pity might make themselves a pest and, by doing so, put us in a bind.

“Who will rid me of that troublesome priest?” is as much a psychologically motivated exclamation as it is a politically motivated question.

Once we reach that point we can convince ourselves that using the power we have to remove the (inter)personal discomfort will do no harm. As Armstrong said, “His mistake was to think he could minimise it to a point where people would think it was not that big a deal”.

And how often have we seen ‘Great’ men and women brought low by seemingly trivial acts of corruption?

This is how our world produces a perfect recipe for corruption:

(1) It encourages us to think that our self-interest and personal convenience is a legitimate goal; (2) it implores us to admire those who have worked the world to their advantage; (3) it creates roles of considerable power; (4) it tends to excuse ‘small errors of judgment’.

You’d be hard pressed to design a better society-wide system for encouraging corrupt, self-serving behaviour.

When Lord Acton said “Power tends to corrupt” and, also, that “Great men are almost always bad men” I’m not sure if he connected the two or saw them as separate processes. But they are the same.

Positions of ‘greatness’ – in Acton’s sense – are positions of power. The extent to which a society honours and exalts ‘greatness’ is the extent to which it makes space for the accumulation and concentration of power – via influence or, directly, through authority. And, as he claimed, power corrupts.

We are all – more or, usually, less successfully – seeking and accumulating power to ourselves. As a society, when we admire ‘Tall Poppies’ we are admiring ‘greatness’ and providing social enticements to become ‘great’.

One reason we do this is that our society is relatively – and possibly increasingly – individualistic and so tends more and more to honour the individual in isolation from their connection to the social or collective good. Ever since Adam Smith, in fact, there have been more and more people willing to tell us that by pursuing our own good we contribute to the common good.

In all our lives the tendency, then, is to use what power we might have to pursue our private gain, almost as of right. In short, our individualistic focus leads us to seek power, and what power we gain then has fertile ground in which to sow the seeds of corruption.

Mix this general socially sanctioned tendency to strive for the power to achieve private gain with formally-acknowledged, institutionalised roles and the result is pretty predictable. In all sorts of ways, we will seek to gain from those roles – if only to use the power the roles give us in order to stop someone from ‘pestering’ us.

The canary in the mine of our corrupted society is the willingness to act corruptly for relatively small ends, or gains. We perhaps hope that, by acting corruptly at such a small scale level, others will let us off, forgive – or even support – our corrupt acts.

In that regard, I’m sure that when John Armstrong mentioned the supposed lack of private gain in what Dr Smith did, he intended to minimise the condemnation of Dr Smith’s acts by others. David Farrar has proposed the argument that it was Dr Smith’s underlying kindness and sense of guilt at being unable to help a friend that led to his downfall:

I suspect Nick felt guilty that he had been unable to assist Bronwyn, despite her multiple requests.

At some stage she must have proposed to him, that okay you can’t intervene with ACC but how about you just write me a reference for the doctors stating what I was like before the accident.

Nick managed to convince himself that as it was not directly to ACC, and that as it was not taking a stance on compensation, that would be an acceptable compromise, and that perhaps finally he could have helped his friend.

But it is the acceptance of small, yet corrupt, acts – to alleviate personal annoyances or discomforts – that we need to be watchful over. (What was all that fuss from John Key over the ‘teapot tapes’ all about, by the way?).

Large scale acts of corruption, after all, are probably too obvious to hide (unless they are called ‘policy’, of course). So, it’s the small ones we are more likely to allow ourselves. Especially so in a society that honours the pursuit of self-interest.

The way to a corrupt society is as banal – as ordinary, as seemingly inconsequential – as the one that leads to an evil society, as Hannah Arendt argued.

But, as critics of Arendt have argued, perhaps there is more to evil (and corruption) than the ‘thoughtlessness’ of ‘following orders’ – perhaps we also must subscribe to an ideology.

The ideology that provides the most nourishing environment for corruption is the ideology of self-interest. An ideology – and society – based on private gain is an incubator for corruption, no matter how decent, as individuals, we might consider ourselves. (Great cruelty can of course come from other ideologies – in which the ‘greater good’ can be used to justify it – but corruption is always about private gain.)

That ideology of self-interest has become pervasive.

Perhaps it’s time we acknowledged that we also have pervasive corruption – so banal as to pass, habitually, beneath the radar?

If we did that then we also might cease to adhere to what Acton called the “favourable presumption that they [‘Great’ men and women] did no wrong“.

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12 Responses to The banality of corruption

  1. Pingback: A tale of China, New Zealand and Finland « Integrity Talking Points

  2. I read this post last night and was not sure what to make of it. It is most certainly worthy of comment and I was pleased to see it included in Bryce Edwards’ political round-up today.
    So, endeavouring to make a decent comment:
    You very much suit your pseudonym.
    You have put forward a good case for a fundamental change to our society, as you generally do. It’s very abstract, though, and unlikely to be widely understood as a result. While I respect Dr Edwards’ ability, I wonder whether he missed the point of the post, merely failed to communicate it in his column, or whether it’s me that’s had everything go whoosh over my head.
    I’d like to think I’ve been considering the same phenomenon from a different perpective. You’ve picked up on the role of individualismand its influence on society.
    It seems to me that our tendency to specialise also contributes. To be seen as a successful individual we become an expert at a very specific thing. We use the point of difference generated to avoid competition, to maximise our perceived value as an individual. We invent concepts as varied as “panels of experts” to debate under the guidance of Paul Holmes on Sunday morning to PhD degrees, to recognise the unique abilities of individuals who have a much deeper understanding of a narrow and generally uninteresting field.
    The mechanism used to determine which field is relevant is worthy of further consideration, because its selection then influences the selection of individuals to guide the decision-making or direction-setting (for the more cynical) and thereby influences the rest of us.
    Yet the whole idea of specialisation is banal. Everyone seems to accept, even expect, that one specialises and can do nothing outside the limit range, or joins the masses that are labour units or human resources (which are just like material resources, except they require meal breaks) that can be replaced whenever necessary.
    It is my belief, with regard to your penultimate paragraph, that our society is pervasively corrupt, in that we do not hold true to our expressed ideals. We do this knowingly, and with the understanding that the people who could hold us to account will either turn a blind eye to, or forgive, our indiscretions. For example, I have a pen on my dresser that I did not purchase. In fact, there appear to be two. My manager, were I to raise it as an issue, would brush it off.
    Perhaps the answer lies not in a stricter adherence to our ideals, but in a more forgiving attitude to indiscretion and an update of our definition of ownership. That would remove the need for the compromise involved in makig excuses.
    I will return the pens to my office tomorrow morning.

    • Puddleglum says:

      Sorry about the confusion – I can ramble sometimes as I get around to making my point.

      The central point was that acting corruptly is pretty much how most of us do things a lot of the time – not because it’s ‘in our nature’ or ‘inevitable’ but because we’ve arranged things, structurally and, now, rhetorically in our society so that our culture encourages and even nurtures corrupt practice (in lots of little ways).

      In that sense, it’s pretty banal – ordinary, small scale – but adds up to a social system and, in this case, bureaucratic processes that never quite operate as they are claimed to.

      If I’m right, we will routinely find businesspeople, politicians, media people and, frankly, ourselves in workplaces and organisations around the country acting corruptly.

      Here’s a comment on The Standard that might help to explain a bit more what I see as important about the issue of corruption.

      The point about ‘division of labour’ is a good one. In a roundabout way I mentioned it in another comment on The Standard, here. And here. (hope you don’t mind the links – saves me rewriting things here.)

      We all become ‘tigers’ in our area of specialisation and ‘pussycats’ outside of it.

      There’s also the fact that we’re less and less sure of things. Did you take those pens I see on your dresser (with the monogrammed trademarks on them), or were you given them, maybe?

      That’s perhaps because we know each other less thoroughly and each of us moves in and between multiple social spheres, often isolated each from the other. Given that, you’ll feel that much freer to take the pens because, if I query you about them you can still say ‘Oh, they were given to me at the end of year office party’, knowing full well that I know no-one in your office and will have little motivation to pursue the ‘pen trails’ :-).

      • Hi Puddleglum
        I am reasonably confident that I’m not confused. Well, not too confused.
        On my walk this evening I considered our use of the word rambling to describe your post, and decided you have done yourself a disservice. Your posts are generally thoughtful, considered, well researched and detailed. It is a great art to express complex ideas in a simple manner; you have the complex ideas side of the equation sorted :)
        The Standard is also a regular read, and how I found your blog, and I’ve already read your comments. Thanks for the links.
        It fascinates me that we have specialised to the point that we are utterly dependent on others for our very survival. It seems to be the essence of foolishness. Many of my colleagues would, left to their own devices, starve in less than a fortnight. Or perish from some water-borne disease. It’s another example of how we have taken the idea of community too far. We have, in my opinion, over-valued many experts, and under-estimated the cost of having them.
        There’s a long and quite irrelevant story behind the pens. They belong to my employer and I have still not returned them. My understanding is that this is theft, even though I intend to return them. The culture at my office is such that were I to admit the theft, eyebrows would be raised quizzically and I would promptly be told not to worry about it. Which illustrates the part of the thrust of your post.

        • Puddleglum says:

          Thanks for that, Armchair critic.

          One of the reasons I started writing this blog was to try to be simpler and more straightforward in how I express ideas. I’ve still got a long way to go :-)

          There’s something important about your idea that when division of labour leads to complete dependence on others (often strangers) for survival then that isn’t such a good thing.

          Apparently, humans are ‘set up’ to be autonomous individuals that live in cooperative arrangements. Each individual, more or less, can look after themselves in the sense that everyone has skills in how to survive.

          But we gathered together – in evolutionary terms – to hedge bets. If 20 people go out hunting and gathering, there’s a good chance that some of them will be successful. Then, whatever they get is shared – because, over time, it’s an evolutionarily stable way (‘strategy’) of maximising survival.

          And that leaves us in a bind – and probably explains a lot about the ‘instinctive’ left-right divide. We are, on the ‘right’ hand, free autonomous beings but, on the ‘left’ hand, we are also set up to expect that autonomy to operate in cooperative conditions.

          All interesting stuff.

  3. Pingback: Born to rule… « Frankly Speaking…

  4. MiMse says:

    Very psychoanalytical on the basics of the human mind. We are basically selfish and greedy.

    That is why religions play an important part in normal people’s life. The “god””Buddha””Allah””etcs deities” are there to guide us so that we can learn not to be astrayed to “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men”. You will be punished if do not follow the religious teachings to be good – heaven and hell, reincarnations etc.

    Puddlegum triggered the conscience of Armchair Critic to return the pens which he should not possess.

    • I haven’t returned the pens yet. And honestly, I don’t feel particularly bad about it.
      The point about ambiguity made in the article Puddleglum found may illustrate why this is so. As background, I also have a laptop computer on my dresser. I am required, by an unwritten and rarely spoken workplace “tradition” to take it home with me. And bring it back the next day, if I need it. If I don’t need it (and that’s a big “if” as I am a datahead) I could leave it at home, no questions asked. The pens are similar to the laptop; the main differences being the capital cost, the regularity of use and the ease of substitution. There’s nothing written or spoken about taking them home, so I’ve made assumptions about reasonable use and worked within those assumptions.
      Is what I have done banal? In the context of my employment it certainly is. Is it corrupt? Of course my opinion is biased, but on the balance of probabilities, it seems that it is.

  5. Further to this piece…

    There was a piece written in the media a few years back, attempting to understand why those in authority commit dishonest acts. The psychology of these acts was that those who do the most social good, or achievements, are most at risk from acts of dishonesty (especially where it benefits them) because they believe they’re entitled. The more good they do; the greater their sense of entitlement to “bend the rules”.

    I wish I could find the article, but it’s been lost many computer-crashes ago…

    • Puddleglum says:

      Hi Frank,

      That sounds like an interesting article. I’ll have a go trying to find it – if you manage to locate it, I’d be interested in seeing it too.

      The idea’s intuitively appealing. It reminds me of Adam Smith’s analysis of the price of labour. He argued that it always finds its ‘natural level’ – if a labourer isn’t paid enough the labourer ‘corrects’ for that by not working so hard.

      That’s the kind of market correction I can believe in :-)

      It’s also a bit like the mentality of dieting – I’ve been so good I deserve to ‘bend the rules’ of the diet (just this once!).

      It’s a pretty handy discursive trick and – the more I think about it – we use it all the time.

      A self-appointed ‘Tall Poppy’ must find it irresistible.

      • Puddleglum says:

        P.S. Just a thought – if people didn’t see their successes and achievements as coming solely from them (i.e., if all those Oscar speeches saying how it was really an award for ‘the whole team’ were actually genuinely felt) that might inoculate them against the ‘temptation’ of dishonesty.

        Probably too Buddhistic to catch on though …

      • Puddleglum says:

        Well, found something interesting along those lines – creativity and dishonesty have been linked in some studies.

        Here’s part of what they concluded from one study:

        “Ambiguity, having some room to justify our behavior, seems to be a really important component of explaining when and why we cross ethical boundaries, and these results show us that creativity helps with that process,” Gino says. “It suggests that moral flexibility is the mechanism explaining why being in a creative mindset or being a creative person puts you more at risk to do the wrong thing.”

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