One of the reasons given for the rapid collapse of the Afghan government is corruption, which most people take to mean the illegal diversion or theft of materials, goods, weapons, and cash. All of that happened, according to a wide range of reports, but corruption goes far beyond that.

When incompetent individuals are appointed to positions that control resources, either in return for payoffs or in anticipation of some form of ill-gotten gain, much more is lost than just resources. There are at least scattered reports that Afghan soldiers often didn’t get paid, although accounts indicated they had been paid. And when such events occur continually, soldiers become less and less willing to fight for superiors whom the soldiers perceive as getting rich off them while ordering them into danger under officers more likely to get them killed.

All effective organizations require some form of trust, and trust has many components, ranging from belief in the organization and its leaders, to the understanding that good performance is rewarded, and poor performance is not. Effective organizations pay people in some fixed ratio to responsibility and results. Less effective organizations do not. In corrupt organizations, power and resources are siphoned off with little or no relation to organizational priorities, needs, or results.

At times, some effective organizations are based on a negative form of trust – if you don’t get results and aren’t loyal, you’ll get fired or even killed. In that respect, there’s a certain similarity between the old-style Mafia and certain high pressure consulting firms.

Corruption in any institution destroys loyalty and trust, and if the corruption is extensive it will destroy the institution – or government – directly or indirectly.

In a democratically governed nation, such as the United States, the appearance of corruption can be as deadly as actual corruption. The poorer and/or more liberal segments of society see great income inequality in a nation, corporation, or institution as a sign of corruption, even if the methods that cause those inequalities are legal under existing laws. Corporation officers and conservatives often seem to be either unaware of this feeling or believe that it is totally unwarranted because the inequality is “legal.”

On the other side, social liberals and disadvantaged individuals support baseline economic support programs for those who are unable to work or involuntarily unemployed, but many right wing conservatives see those programs, since they’re financed from taxes on working individuals, as a form of corrupt government seizure of income.

Both extremes view these programs/systems valued by the other as “corrupt.” Such perceptions undermine the support of government, despite the fact that these programs/systems were legally established, unlike the widespread corruption in Afghanistan.

That raises the question, of course, of whether there is such a thing as “legal corruption” and, if so, how one can effectively define it.

10 thoughts on “Corruption”

  1. Lourain says:

    Possible definition of legal corruption: “Laws designed to benefit one group that significantly harm another group.”

    Plenty of room for discussion, of course, such as the definitions for “benefit” and “significant harm”.

    1. Tim says:

      Such laws exist in some countries nowadays -especially concerning religious tolerance -but I would not necessarily term them legally corrupt laws.

      The Romans had laws which benefited the Patrician families in that they paid no tax. Again not legally corrupt but certainly discriminating.

      On a final note, if a law is passed, then by definition it surely it cannot be corrupt within the legal system which passed it. It can of course be termed as corrupt by an outsider but is that actually fair? Or is that really judgment based on another viewpoint?

      1. Lourain says:

        Discriminating is not necessarily harmful. Some laws discriminate, in favor of handicapped people. I find ramps uncomfortable to walk down, compared to stairs, but ramps do me no significant harm.
        If a law was passed by legislators that you must pay your legislator $10 000 before they will help with a problem, that law would benefit legislators and wealthy people, but cause significant harm to the poor. The law might be legal, but since it causes significant harm to some of the people the legislator is supposed to represent, it is corrupt.
        In the US the courts have the responsibility to place checks on such legal corruption.

  2. Tom says:

    In my recent reading this is the closest I came to “legal corruption” that is my assumption of what LEM meant:

    … Institutional corruption is not the individual corruption exemplified by bribery and similar illegal offenses (Rose-Ackerman & Palifka 2016, pp. 7–11), and it is not simply the structural corruption prominent in the work on developing societies (Acemoglu & Robinson 2010). The theorists who have taken this turn call attention not simply to the corruption of institutions but to distinctive ways in which institutions can be corrupted.

    For these theorists—who may be called normative institutionalists—corruption is distinctively integral to an institution in three ways. First, it is equivocal: The corruption benefits the institution while undermining it. The corruption exploits legitimate institutional practices that provide benefits that even an uncorrupted institution needs, and for which alternatives must be found if the institution is to function well. Unlike the practice of bribery, for example, campaign fundraising serves a legitimate function. Second, institutional corruption is impersonal: The individual agents of corruption act in institutional roles and do not have the corrupt motives that characterize agents who participate in quid pro quo exchanges. Politicians who accept campaign contributions and do favors for their constituents act partly in their own political interest but also promote the competitive and other values of the democratic process. Third, the corruption is generalizable: It is found not only in government but in many other kinds of institutions. Although most of the institutionalists focus on political institutions, all suggest that their theories can be extended. The general approach has stimulated other scholars to examine institutional corruption in a wide variety of contexts, including the pharmaceutical industry, the mass media, universities, hospitals, think tanks, banks, community development authorities, the arms industry, and sports associations (see Safra Research Lab Working Paper Series, ….

    This reference may be closer to “legal corruption”:,by%20explicit%20or%20implicit%20understanding.

    … We define legal corruption as the political gains in the form of campaign contributions or endorsements by a government official, in exchange for providing specific benefits to private individuals or groups, be it by explicit or implicit understanding. Such dealings are, in turn, one aspect of the broader issue of institutional corruption which, according to Lessig,

    … is manifest when there is a systemic and strategic influence which is legal, or even currently ethical, that undermines the institution’s effectiveness by diverting it from its purpose or weakening its ability to achieve its purpose, including, to the extent relevant to its purpose, weakening either the public’s trust in that institution or the institution’s inherent trustworthiness. …

  3. Lourain says:

    The difference between your definition and mine seems to be the original intent. Your definition takes laws/rules that were developed with good intent and distorts them to the benefit of a few. My definition assumes corrupt intent from the start.
    I think that your definition is a better model of today’s society.

  4. Bill says:

    The answer of legal corruption is similar to testing especially software testing where there is “white” box testing and “black” box testing. In “white” box testing you look at all the code and understand how it works when testing. In “black” box testing you only look at the outputs. “Legal” corruption comes about when from a “white” box review, everything is legal. But when looking at the outputs it seems corrupt.
    Some of the recent voting laws could be seen as legal corruption. The laws are valid, but their real intent is to prevent the “wrong” people from voting.
    The question that is hard to answer is what is the psychological makeup of the conservatives who suffer from it but continue to support it?

  5. Hanneke says:

    For me, legal corruption is when the law allows rich individuals, institutions and corporations to buy a lot of influence on those supposedly impartial persons and institutions that are making the laws or the decisions impacting the buying individuals, corporations and institutions, thus warping the supposedly impartial weighing of costs, benefits and consequences in a way that profits the buyers.

    Hence, the prime example to me of legal corruption is visible in Citizens United and the rest of the partizan Supreme Court decisions that gradually freed up the giving of unlimited and untraceable (unaccountable) amounts of money, by those who have a lot of money, to politicians, political action groups and judicial nomination campaigns.

    The results are well documented: politicians’ choices and votes have in the last decades steadfastly followed the wishes of the large-money donors rather than those of their constituents, whom they are supposed to represent.
    Thus, the supposedly impartial laws are bent towards allowing the rich to get ever richer, at the expense of the rest of the country, and “government by the people, for the people” gets left as something to pay lip service to, rather than as a truly democratic principle of government in which all citizens of a democracy have an equal say in how they are governed.

    And meanwhile the supposedly impartial judiciary gets pushed in the same direction, by massive amounts of money spent on making sure pro-corporate judges get elected or appointed to positions of power, and judges that might be inclined to rule against corporate abuses of power do not get appointed. As a result of which, those pro-corporate judges can then rule that spending ever more unlimited amounts of untraceable money to get judges appointed and politicians elected is perfectly legal. After all, they owe their own lofty function to that, and they consider themselves good people doing a good job, so there could be nothing wrong with that, could there?

  6. R. Hamilton says:

    To abolish corruption, abolish all benefits and entitlements (both individual and corporate), apply a flat tax with no loopholes, incentives, disincentives, etc, and, perhaps scaled rather than linear, something along the lines of one dollar tax paid, one vote. And very high transparency of all financial records, both private and government; black programs both government and corporate could still exist, but the size of the program (not consolidated with others) and certain inputs and perhaps a bit more would still have to be a matter of record.

    In other words, crush the useless, legalize and lightly tax as many activities as possible, maximize transparency, and too bad for those who can’t survive under those conditions, because you also have to crush those who survive by commiting the few remaining crimes.

    I don’t know that I’d want that (although none of it precludes PRIVATELY helping at least some of the needy – which many people do anyway, and could do more of if less of their resources were confiscated), but it would be interesting.

    Except that I’d be a lot more willing to use force to deal with those who misbehave even under a much smaller set of rules than we have now, see also the fiction of L. Neil Smith.

    So almost libertarian, but with teeth.

  7. Joe says:

    I suggest you read “The WEIRDest people in the world”. If you do, you won’t be surprised by the “corruption” in Afghanistan. Tribal societies work differently from Western Educated Industrialised Rich Democratic ones.

    1. I’m well aware of how tribal societies work. They’re also incompatible with modern technological societies. If a people want the benefits of technology, corruption (or, if you will, everything for me, my family, and clan now, and the hell with outsiders) has to be minimized.

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