An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Summer 2018

Fighting Systemic Corruption: The Indirect Strategy

Bo Rothstein

While attention to corruption and anticorruption policies has increased dramatically in research and in policy, the results of many anticorruption and so-called good-governance programs have so far been unimpressive. I argue that this lack of success can be explained by the reliance on a theoretical approach–namely, the “principal-agent theory”–that seriously misconstrues the basic nature of the corruption problem. In this essay, I contend that the theory of collective action is a more fruitful foundation for developing anticorruption policies. I suggest that policy measures based on a collective-action understanding of corruption will be much less direct–and ultimately more effective–than approaches derived from the principal-agent theory. Taking inspiration from military theorist Basil Liddell Hart’s “indirect approach” strategy, I argue that decision-makers should focus on policies that change the basic social contract, instead of relying solely on measures that are intended to change incentives for corrupt actors.

BO ROTHSTEIN holds the August Röhss Chair in Political Science at the University of Gothenburg. He is the author of The Quality of Government: Corruption, Social Trust, and Inequality in International Perspective (2011), Social Traps and the Problem of Trust (2005), and Just Institutions Matter: The Moral and Political Logic of the Universal Welfare (1998).

When politicians want to signal that they are very serious about a problem, they sometimes describe themselves as being “at war” with it. Well-known examples include the “war on poverty,” the “war on drugs,” and the “war on terror.” As the number of studies demonstrating corruption’s considerable negative effects on almost all measures of human well-being has risen, the war analogy has been extended to the fight against corruption. The current president of Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari, for example, declared a full-scale “war against corruption,” making it a centerpiece of his 2015 election campaign and early administration. The war metaphor can be exaggerated or misplaced, but in the case of corruption, it may not be so far-fetched. First, the effects of corruption on population health are so profound that people are literally “dying of corruption.” Second, fighting corruption can be so dangerous–with powerful economic, political, and criminal interests fighting for its preservation–that high-level anticorruption officials often feel that their work puts their and their family’s lives at risk, in some cases forcing them to flee their home country. Third, despite a number of large-scale anticorruption “attacks,” especially during the last two decades, corruption has proved itself to be a very resilient, often well-organized and -entrenched enemy. Still, large-scale armed conflicts are rarely accountable to democratic law, implying that war is not the best metaphor for dealing with corruption through democratic means. However, the strategic thinking about armed conflicts has useful applications in the fight against corruption. The main purpose of this essay, then, is to analyze anticorruption efforts through the lens of military strategy–in particular, that of military theorist Sir Basil Liddell Hart–to see what can be learned from theories about success and failure in military conflicts.

To observe the fight against corruption from this strategic perspective, we need to know a number of things. First, what is our current position in the conflict? In other words, how . . .

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