Corruption as Bad Governance Review of Alina Mungiu-Pipidi’s book – The Quest for Good Governance: How Societies Develop Control of Corruption
The issue that has polarized, more than any other, Romanian politics and Romanian society for the last decade and a half is the subject of Alina Mungiu-Pipidi’s book, “The Quest for Good Governance: How Societies Develop Control of Corruption”, Cambridge University Press, 2015 (translated in Romanian by Ioana Aneci as “În căutarea bunei guvernări: cum au scăpat alte țări de corupție”, Polirom, 2017).
Drawing on the institutionalist literature developed by economists and political scientists in the last half century, Mungiu-Pipidi defines corruption broadly as the absence of universalistic ethical norms in a society’s governance. Therefore, good governance is the absence of corruption or the absence of particularistic ethical norms in the design and implementation of public policy. The distinction between a particularistic mode of governance – in which resources and public offices are allocated preferentially according to status, connections or the power of various interest groups – and a universalistic mode of governance – in which resources and public offices are allocated in accordance with transparent and publicly deliberated democratic decisions – is reminiscent of Max Weber’s ideal type political sociology and undergirds the book’s entire analysis. The comparative analysis and public policy recommendations on offer revolve around the “invisible threshold” which produces this Enlightenment-era distinction between what the author calls governance regimes of limited access and a governance regime of open access.
Mungiu-Pipidi’s framework flows straight out of the preceding institutionalist literature, and in fact borrows extensively from both its old as well as from its recent representatives, by putting good governance, or the absence of corruption defined as deviation from universalistic norms, at the centre of the argument. However, she prudently makes two amendments to its linear conclusions: first, instead of corruption petering out as a society grows richer, the way the modernisation theory contends, she admits that the two might coexist, as the experience of China, India and other high-growth emerging countries apparently shows; secondly, instituting a working democracy or a pluralistic political regime also does not necessarily mean the disappearance of particularistic governance norms, the way democratic theory suggests, as the experience of Central and Eastern European countries, for instance, apparently shows.
The book’s proposed model of corruption is quite simple and maybe even intellectually appealing, but ridden with all the ambiguities its tacitly normative, Enlightenment or evolutionist, hypothesis presupposes. A stage-type taxonomy of four governance regimes – three with limited access (termed patrimonial, competitive particularism and “borderline”) and one with open access – is made the explanans of a society’s level of corruption. However, since the four governance regimes are derived diachronically (i.e. from historical evolution) but are used for synchronic (i.e. present-day cross-country) analysis, it is actually very difficult to meaningfully compare the severity of corruption or to make meaningful appreciations of it on this basis. The issue is indeed considered by the author but not really surmounted, since for each country’s stage of development or phase of historical evolution, to use more loaded words, corruption might actually be... optimal. The operationally more valuable part of the book is a proposed new measurement of corruption understood as particularistic governance. Moving beyond the Transparency International Index of public opinion surveys, which measures individual-level perception of corruption, Mungiu-Pipidi proposes a country-wide objective measure of corruption, defined as the share of public expenditure or of public offices in various government sectors found to have a politically skewed distribution, although data limitation and data comparison issues precludes her from offering a general picture. The book also contains a “How to become Denmark” guide, which outlines in ranked order of their success three historical models of anticorruption enforcement (absolutist monarchical, elite republican and liberal-democratic) and concludes for today’s context in favour of building a strong and activist civil society to act as an agent of social change as well as for benevolent international pressure. This part of the book is essentially a summary of the current thinking in the “best practice recommendations industry” of academics that work as consultants for various international organisations, ranging from the European Union – which sponsored this research – to the World Bank or the United Nations.
Despite editing issues with the Romanian edition, such as a nonsense coefficients of correlations table on page 58 (issues which are unfortunately quite common in the local publishing industry when it comes to data rich books), “The Quest for Good Governance” by Alina Mungiu-Pipidi is a welcome, instructive and thought-provoking exposition of the current state of research on the topic of corruption, all the more in a country where – for obvious and justifiable reasons – the word and its proxies seem to register one of the highest frequencies in the media, in official political discussions and even in people’s private conversations.