Home - Per Capita
About us

Power v common good, The Australian, 2 April 2011

The Australian

by Tim Soutphommasane, Senior Project Leader, Per Capita

Can we describe something as corruption if no laws have been broken?

It is not a happy time to be a member of the NSW Labor Party. Nor should it be, given the spectacular massacre of Labor MPs at last Saturday's state election. It will be many years before such an emphatic rejection of a government will be seen again.

The reasons for Labor's loss have been well-documented. Sixteen years in office is a long time for any government. Add the farce of the past four years, and even the most loyal Labor supporter would have struggled to offer good reasons for returning the party to government. Many have concluded that the present state of the once mighty NSW Labor Party reflects a form of moral corruption within its ranks: namely, an amorality that leads factional powerbrokers to regard public office as merely a vehicle for power, if not also personal enrichment.

I use the word corruption advisedly, for I have had a long-running dispute with a friend of mine -- let me call him Julius -- about whether the word could be used to describe the decay of a political party.

Julius is of the view that one can call something corrupt only if there is some type of illegal behaviour involving a lack of probity. It may be that something is dysfunctional or unsavoury, he argues, but we should never call something corrupt unless a law has been broken. Therefore, say what you will about the debased factional machine politics of NSW Labor, but don't mislabel it as corruption.

When Julius thinks of corruption, he is thinking of its legal sense. For him, it strictly means those instances when a public official acts dishonestly, breaches the public trust or abuses a public office for private gain.

There are, however, limits to this legalistic view. Usually it implies that corruption is a misdeed motivated by economic gain: bribery or graft is most commonly identified as the paradigmatic example.

Not all corruption, though, must be legal or economic in nature. There may be question marks over the integrity of a public institution when patronage and personal favour rule over conscience and conviction. The philosophical meaning of corruption can't be limited by the terms of some statute. The term encompasses all behaviour that undermines the disposition of office holders to act with the right motivation. Any legal notion of corruption is derivative of an ethical understanding of public responsibility.

The more instructive reflections on corruption come not from law but from republican political thought. Consider the writings of Niccolo Machiavelli. Though many know him as the author of The Prince, a handbook for why princes should not be good, Machiavelli offered a more comprehensive statement of his thinking in his Discourses on Livy. According to Machiavelli, a healthy political city-state is characterised by civic virtue. Political actors "subordinate all of their advantage to the common good". By contrast, in corrupt cities, citizens and politicians regard the political arena as merely a means for gaining prestige and power.

As the Discourses makes clear, Machiavelli was no Renaissance prototype of a party apparatchik but a republican who believed that a corrupt people can enjoy liberty with only the greatest difficulty. In the republican sense, corruption means a corruption of purpose, a tendency to privilege one's own interest over the common good. My disagreement with Julius reflects my sympathy for Machiavelli's position.

At the same time, I understand why some have reservations about adopting the republican view. It demands that we apply a standard of civic virtue not only to elected officials but also to ourselves. Yet how many of us can say that we truly care, and are ready to make sacrifices, for the common good?