Corruption: Greed, Culture and the State

16 Pages Posted: 26 Jul 2010 Last revised: 17 Nov 2010

Date Written: July 26, 2010


The concept of corruption is contested in some quarters, requiring an analysis of deep questions defining the relationship between state and society. This essay introduces these issues by confronting the seemingly disparate views of free market libertarians and of those ethnographers who study corruption as an aspect of state/society relations. Both are skeptical of the modern state and frequently see “corruption” as a superior alternative to abiding by the formal law. The essay than considers how free-marketeers and cultural ethnographers confront what is called ”grand corruption” - involving political leaders and multi-national firms. Here, corporate interests, that in other circumstances emphasize the value of the free market, characteristically invoke local cultural practices as an excuse for making payoffs. In contrast, scholars of local cultural practices invoke the predominance of economic incentives - that is, the greed and the profit motive of multi-national firms - to condemn grand corruption. After confronting these curious convergences and conceptual reversals, the essay presents the author’s own view. Call it the “democratic legitimacy” approach. It stresses the way pervasive corruption undermines the competence, fairness, and democratic legitimacy of the modern state. It substitutes the criteria of willingness-to-pay for criteria based on desert, need, efficiency, and other values. This approach leads to a suggested reform agenda consistent with the goal of strengthening state capacity and accountability.

Suggested Citation

Rose-Ackerman, Susan, Corruption: Greed, Culture and the State (July 26, 2010). Yale Law Journal Online, Vol. 120, pp. 125-140, 2010; Yale Law & Economics Research Paper No. 409. Available at SSRN: or

Susan Rose-Ackerman (Contact Author)

Yale Law School ( email )

P.O. Box 208215
New Haven, CT 06520-8215
United States

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