Particularism’s Empire

Issue Date October 2016
Volume 27
Issue 4
Page Numbers 172-75
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The Quest for Good Governance: How Societies Develop Control of Corruption. By Alina Mungiu-Pippidi. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. 314 pp.

In this bold and important book, Alina Mungiu-Pippidi seeks nothing less than to overturn received wisdom about what corruption is and how best to combat it. She disputes analyses that see corrupt acts as deviations from norms of integrity, arguing that in most cases—both in the past and today—corruption is instead “an intrinsic part of a certain governance context, a social allocation mode” (p. 19). This mode, which she calls particularism, is a historical and sociopolitical giant: It represents the dominant pattern of social organization in most countries today, and is the “natural state of affairs” in human history pretty much anywhere one looks (p. 24). Many anticorruption strategies fail because, unable to see or unwilling to admit this, they wrongheadedly insist on viewing corruption as an aberration rather than as something deeply woven into an enveloping social system.

Mungiu-Pippidi marshals evidence both quantitative and qualitative. She crunches numbers to reveal various aspects of corruption and governance around the world, and she tells the stories of countries (past and present) that have left pervasive corruption behind in order to discern how they did it. She also analyzes the anticorruption strategies that international actors have come to favor, especially in Eastern Europe. Often, she writes, such strategies have come to nothing. She stresses the vastness of the anticorruption task, seeing it as only part of a massive process of social, political, and normative transformation. She [End Page 172] urges international anticorruption experts to be modest and cautious. Yet hers is not a counsel of despair: Instead, she closes with a powerful plea for anticorruption programming that is realistic and tailored to fit the context in which it is supposed to be working.

About the Author

Edward Aspinall is a professor at the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, Australian National University.

View all work by Edward Aspinall

Of course, this is not the first time that an expert has written of the intractability of corruption or its ability to infuse an entire political system. That intractability has long drawn attention from scholars and bred frustration among reformers. But in this book, Mungiu-Pippidi not only starkly confirms corruption’s stubbornness, she also explains it.

Through a convincing interrogation of multiple sources, she demonstrates that success in anticorruption efforts over the last two decades has been rare: The World Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indicators since 1996 tell us that “very few countries have managed to evolve in controlling corruption” (p. 51). Many of the anticorruption interventions that she describes have been of limited use if not downright counterproductive. She is especially dismissive of programs that seek to replicate, in countries where corruption is entrenched, the integrity-promoting institutions (anticorruption agencies, ombudsmen, and the like) that are common where corruption is rare. “The presence of an anticorruption agency,” she says while drawing on her own large-N study, is “even associated with a deterioration in the control of corruption” (p. 106).

Programs that make aid or other benefits conditional on the adoption of anticorruption measures have also fallen short. The enlarging EU required applicant states to carry out wide-ranging institutional reforms, but these were mostly fleeting, with some anticorruption arrangements “dismantled the day after EU accession” (p. 198). The book is filled with such sobering accounts of failure.

What explains this dispiriting record? Mungiu-Pippidi points to societies’ deep normative structures. She draws a sharp distinction between social orders that function on the basis of ethical universalism, “where equal treatment applies to everyone regardless of the group to which one belongs,” and societies suffused by particularism, “where individuals are treated differently according to particular ties or criteria” (p. 14). In this latter type of society, favoritism is “the main social allocation mode, with widespread use of connections of any kind, exchange of favors, and, in their absence, monetary inducements.” (p. 22). In such circumstances, corruption is the norm, or at least an alternative to other forms of particularistic advantage-wielding such as those based on status, clan, ethnicity, or party.

Overcoming corruption means moving from particularism to ethical universalism. In Mungiu-Pippidi’s assessment, only 35 of the world’s 190 or so countries have made this journey and become what Douglass C. North and his collaborators call “open-access orders.” All the rest are ruled through neopatrimonialism or some form of competitive particularism, where electoral competition is real but is mostly about seizing control of state resources. [End Page 173]

Behind many of the failures that litter the annals of anticorruption, writes Mungiu-Pippidi, lies a widespread but false assumption that “anticorruption efforts are win-win policies.” This blunder leads to “various implausible principals” being entrusted with “the task of controlling corruption” (p. 209). It makes no sense to hand the public-integrity brief to an internal-affairs minister who “receives a commission from every informal payment extracted by subordinate control agencies” (p. 212). When particularism predominates, even in an electoral democracy, the “social struggle … is to belong to the privileged group rather than to challenge the rules of the game” (p. 32). As a result, societal demands for integrity are frequently muted.

The basic problem is one of collective action. Corruption is intractable because particularism’s dominance makes it “more convenient for individuals to try to accede to the privileged group or to become clients of influential patrons than to engage in a long-term battle to change the rule of the game to ethical universalism.” Particularism feeds on itself until a suboptimal equilibrium is reached. Trying to change it will mean “high costs with few immediate returns” (p. 184).

This equilibrium can be expressed as an equation: “Control of Corruption = Constraints (Legal + Normative) – Opportunities (Power Discretion + Material Resources)” (p. 117). Change the weight of any of these factors, and you can help a society move toward greater integrity. On the “opportunities” side, privatization can shrink the material resources available to state officials, while cutting red tape can reduce their discretionary power and with it their ability to extract rents and bribes. On the “constraints” side (Mungiu-Pippidi’s main focus), state institutions such as independent courts and agencies are useful, but the really key forces are civil society, the media, and voters themselves. Only when constraints on corruption become truly “societal” can one attack “the core cause of particularism,” namely, “inequality between power resources resulting in uneven access to public rents” (p. 119).

The lesson is clear: Any approach to reducing corruption (or other forms of particularism) must carefully read the country’s balance sheet of constraints and opportunities. Only then should strategies to promote ethical universalism be chosen. Changing an entire governance order—the basic operating format of a whole society—“can occur only gradually and through a succession of radical actions and disequilibria until a new equilibrium is achieved” (p. 211). This is mainly work for locals. International promoters of anticorruption should keep their expectations modest and remember that their role is primarily to support “the empowerment of domestic forces” (p. 210).

Mungiu-Pippidi closes with concrete lessons for policy makers and what she calls the “anticorruption industry.” They must first ask whether particularism or ethical universalism has the upper hand in the country in question. If the latter predominates, then it makes sense to treat corruption [End Page 174] as a deviation to be suppressed. If corruption and other forms of particularism rule, however, that course can be a fatal blunder: The introduction of “norm-infringing anticorrupton instruments” will often “fail to promote norm building” (p. 208). In such societies, promoting a transition to ethical universalism is “largely a political rather than a technical-legal process: the main issue is power inequality, which can hardly be overcome only through ‘training’ and building ‘technical expertise’” (p. 209).

In societies where corruption is entrenched, and belongs to a wider web of particularistic exchange, “stirring collective action” must be central to any viable anticorruption strategy (p. 225). Accordingly, the next steps are to “identify plausible principals, assist their coalition building, and support an increase in demands for anticorruption measures more generally” (p. 217). Mungiu-Pippidi is aware that plausible principals might be found within government. Considering historical cases such as Denmark’s, she acknowledges that top-down reform and professionalization of the bureaucracy might be possible (p. 215). This may apply as well to existing traditional monarchies, such as some of those in the Middle East today.

In most cases, however, the key challenge will be to build “an enlightened citizenry with collective action capacities” (p. 216). Donors should expect to find this politically challenging, and should avoid overestimating their own influence. Yet this long-term political path to fixing corruption is preferable to a quicker but ill-chosen technical “solution” that at best clogs the field with unworkable expedients and at worst becomes perverted by “the system” into just another means of exploitation and repression.

A brief review can scarcely do justice to Mungiu-Pippidi’s complex and subtle achievement. Her book is a powerful synthesis of theory, empirical analysis, and policy prescription. She is not just a scholar but also a leading anticorruption campaigner in her home country of Romania. She has known both the sweet savor of success in promoting an anticorruption agenda, and the bitter aftertaste that comes when it falters and particularism returns. This experience underpins her analysis, and the resulting combination of hard-edged realism and scholarly care gives her writing considerable power. Readers who are familiar with a country where corruption is part of the fabric of social and political affairs—my own speciality is Indonesia—will discover many moments of recognition in these pages, as well as a framework to aid understanding and useful lessons about how to move forward. The Quest for Good Governance deserves to have a major impact on how scholars and practitioners understand corruption, and on their efforts to help societies overcome it. [End Page 175]


Copyright © 2016 National Endowment for Democracy and Johns Hopkins University Press