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Is Freedom From Corruption a Human Right? (Part 2 of 3)

In this series I’m making the case that we should now think of freedom from corruption as a universal human right. John Locke, whose political philosophy is the foundation of modern rights thinking, certainly thought of corruption this way. He just called it by a different name. But just as interestingly, diverse thought systems from around the world similarly view corruption as violating the most fundamental principles of government.

For Locke, of course, all persons are endowed with a right to liberty. We possess that right irrespective of whether our culture recognizes it or our government protects it. Locke is famous, or infamous, for thinking about the purpose of government by first asking what life would be like in the “state of nature.” But all he meant by that much-misunderstood phrase was life in the absence of legitimate government. (Open question as to how many of us actually live in that state now).

Locke knew that in the absence of government, we would from time to time act in our self-interest at the expense of others. And so we need a neutral third-party to enforce the law. Only under such a government can our natural right to liberty be most fully realized.

Note, then, that the Lockean right to liberty can only exist where government is truly neutral — where it rules in accordance with the public good rather than the officials’ self-interest. Where officials rule not in accordance with the public good but instead abuse public office for private gain, the right of liberty is violated. Put another way, the right to liberty can only exist in the absence of corruption. Freedom from corruption is the Lockean right to liberty by another name.

But Lockean rights thinking is widely criticized today for being narrowly western. A truly universal human right must be rooted in culturally diverse philosophies of government. Certainly true. But even among those cultures that have historically been most resistant to rights thinking — the Islamic Middle-East, and East Asia (particularly China) — corruption is regarded a violation of the most fundamental principles of government. Confucianism, an ancient way of thinking now increasingly embraced by the modern Chinese government, teaches that the first requirement of government is the rule of virtue. Confucius envisioned a ruler whose virtue would “sweep over the people and transform them just as the wind blowing over long stalks of grass.”

Similarly, in Islamic jurisprudence, the purpose of government is to cultivate self-discipline and morality through such virtues as honesty (sidq), the keeping of promises (wafa bi’l-‘ahd) and the avoidance of lying (khidhb). As one Muslim scholar wrote, “unfortunately, Islamic standards and norms are not often appreciated by states in the Muslim world.” But again, when thinking about rights we ask not what governments are doing, but what governments are supposed to do.

Islamic jurists, Confucians, and Lockeans might vehemently disagree on any of a number of other alleged rights, such as the right to political representation, or religious freedom, or the modern right to privacy. But they would be in perfect agreement that all persons are entitled to a government free from corruption. Indeed, freedom from corruption might be the most universal right of all.

For a fuller account of these arguments, see our Brookings Institution white paper here.

In the concluding post, I’ll explain why any of this matters.


Andy Spalding is a Senior Editor of the FCPA Blog and Assistant Professor at the University of Richmond School of Law.

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