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There’s no perfect way to measure corruption. So what?

Jonathan Rusch seems to indicate in his post that we disagree about data. I think we disagree mostly about the best attitude for decision-makers. Rusch indicates that I somehow disparage data, almost as if I were disparaging how someone earns a living, but to paraphrase Don Corleone, I too work with data. In fact, I’m a big fan of information.

The idea of actual corruption as unmeasurable was proposed by researchers using empirical data. Quite cleverly, they defined “actual” as “unmeasurable” by writing it like this — actual (unmeasurable) corruption.

They were concerned about the relationship between measured corruption and the unreported or unmeasured amount of corruption, or one could say — the accuracy of the measurement. A link to the conference papers containing this article is included in my original post. I do have the full citation on hand and if anyone would like it, please reach out.

To continue, I agree there is a definitional problem with corruption, but I don’t necessarily think the solution is for me specifically to define it. Corruption (or anything generally that is talked about) gets defined constantly by human beings, but also by organizations and other social systems.

Many observers seem to conflate corruption with bribery, perhaps even restricting it to bribery of public officials. Broadly speaking, as the partners at Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP might agree, definitions of corruption may include transactions conducted completely between private parties.

Others currently include money laundering. There is even the suggestion from some that providing otherwise legal advice about how to launder potentially dirty money is a sign of corruption. This would obviously be very hurtful to the rankings of certain countries often thought of as less corrupt but also as preferred destinations or conduits for illicit proceeds.

Even the much vaunted Transparency International is now willing to admit that something appears to be rotten in the state of Denmark.

Nevertheless, I too agree with Rusch that perfection is practical only in the realm of theory. Since we have some fairly reasonable but imperfect measures to vaccinate against the ills of corruption, we should use them. Since companies can take steps, however imperfect, to assist with their own anti-corruption compliance, they should. However, I think theory provides a useful tool to encourage refinement of practice.

Notwithstanding our ability to measure the coastline of England with a reasonable degree of accuracy, I would urge decision-makers never to become complacent or overconfident. The list of compliance failures is long, and it keeps getting longer.

Ironically, success may impede decision-making. Selection in a complex system always implies other possibilities. One could say that the paradox of decision-making, as the theory goes, is undecidability. In a perfect world, without risk or uncertainty, no decisions would be necessary. Yet merely discussing the idea of a perfect world does not mean I think we live in one.


William N. Weaver, pictured above, received a B.A. in Communication from the University of Pennsylvania before later earning a J.D. from Campbell University law school in Raleigh, NC. He currently works as a compliance analyst for U.S. Bank. The views expressed are his own, and not the views of his employer. He can be contacted here

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