The Poverty of 'Corruption': Confusions and Disagreements About the Rotten in Politics

28 Pages Posted: 5 Jun 2015 Last revised: 28 Jan 2016

Date Written: June 3, 2015


During the debate over what was then known as the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill, Senator Mitch McConnell took issue with the claim that the bill would combat corruption. “How can there be corruption if no one is corrupt?” McConnell asked, “That’s like saying the gang is corrupt but none of the gangsters are.” Such rhetorical tropes pose a dilemma for those who would define corruption. One response would be to dispute the implicit definition of corruption. Students of political theory and empirical political science have proposed numerous definitions of corruption, yet there is little consensus on definitions. This poses a problem for measurement, but it also poses a problem for political discourse. It is easy for those who have competing objectives or ideologies to talk past each other or to compete over whose definition is “correct.”

In our opinion, however, the problem is not one of definition; classical and modern philosophers have shown more agreement than disagreement in their conceptualization of the term, and debates over definition often descend into semantics. Rather, the problem is that the object of corruption is often unspecified in contemporary political discussions. Who, or what, can be corrupted, and what are the implications of specifying (or failing to specify) the object to which one is referring? In this paper we explore common themes in philosophers’ definitions of corruption. We note the different objects of corruption in these treatments, including individuals, institutions, states, peoples, and the various tools or procedures used by these various actors. Adjudicating in common whether a particular object is corrupt involves agreeing on appropriate standards for that object. At the same time, however, for many objects of possible corruption these standards are perennially disputed; this is especially true when the object at issue is an institution or perhaps an entire regime. Consequently, by discussing the corruption of these objects people are, whether they know it or not, drawn into perennial, fundamental questions of political life, questions which, if pursued thoughtfully, lead to the classical topics of political theory about the nature of justice and about the human and common good served and sought by those objects. Rather than proffering another definition of corruption that would apply to all possible objects or attempting to settle these permanent political questions, the paper wishes to clarify how political discourse often confuses standards appropriate to different objects of corruption and to highlight how political discourse about corruption often implicates us in classical questions of political philosophy.

Keywords: corruption, campaign finance

Suggested Citation

Boatright, Robert G. and Flynn, Molly, The Poverty of 'Corruption': Confusions and Disagreements About the Rotten in Politics (June 3, 2015). Modified version available in Albany Government Law Review, Vol. 9, No. 2, Forthcoming, Available at SSRN: or

Robert G. Boatright (Contact Author)

Clark University ( email )

950 Main Street
Worcester, MA 01610
United States

Molly Flynn

Assumption College ( email )

500 Salisbury Street
Worcester, MA 01609
United States

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