The Rule of the Unprincipled, Unethical and Unqualified
(click here for abstract and image

Dr. Michael Johnston
Charles A. Dana Professor of Political Science
Colgate University, Hamilton, NY;
2009 Grawemeyer Award 

for Ideas Improving World Order;
2008 Ethisphere’s List of 100 Most Influential People 

in Business Ethics

Entrenched, systemic corruption poses challenges that citizens of more fortunate societies often do not understand. Where accountability, governance institutions, and ethical frameworks are strong, corruption is the exception — not the rule. Usually it consists of discrete, clearly transgressive actions for which legal and political recourse is readily at hand. A bureaucrat who accepts a bribe or an elected official who abuses the powers of office in order to extract campaign contributions or personal gifts, breaks clear rules. While some dealings will go undetected, over time there is a significant probability of investigation, prosecution, and punishment for the guilty. Even where the activities in question do not so much break the law as exceed the limits of fair play — think campaign contributions that are too large, excessive patronage practices, or price-fixing among business cronies — a variety of public agencies and professional/trade associations set up to maintain open and equitable political and market processes can quickly impose a variety of sanctions. Backing it all up is a citizenry that expects fair play and accountability, and can demand action when things go wrong, as well as an elite culture in which rules and accountability are accepted facts of life. To be sure, even the best-governed societies fall short of these ideals from time to time; still, corrupt figures and abusers of power know they are taking significant risks, while citizens and honest business people have alternatives to corrupt ways of getting things done. 

Not so, however, in systemically corrupt societies. There, the abuse of power is the norm, rules are vague or poorly enforced, and citizens can do little to demand punishment or reward accountability. In a Kakistocracy — a government by the worst — reporting abuses of power to authorities may amount to little more than informing one corrupt official about his rivals’ gains and techniques. Where elections are commonplace, promises of reform is the rule, yet little seems to change; indeed, campaigns and voting create new corruption in their own right. Courageous judges and journalists must fight a broader system in which bribery, intimidation, and violence protect the powerful and silence dissenters. Grassroots leaders seeking to mobilize their neighbors encounter resignation and distrust, often as understandable responses to deprivation and exploitation in everyday life. Many citizens will have little choice but to deal with venal and dishonest officials, and to do so from a position of vulnerability and weakness, while those involved in corrupt dealings all too frequently come to believe in their own impunity. 

No place fits the latter description perfectly; corruption reflects a wide range of local influences everywhere it occurs. Still, because of its immense potential as well as its long-term governance problems, there is no better place than the Republic of the Philippines to begin to understand those contrasting realities. A strategic country and its large, energetic population has been very poorly served by its government over the decades; deep poverty and the waste of human potential are distressing realities in a society that by all rights ought to be one of the leaders of its region. In this book — a worthy successor to his well-known Fixing Society — Ronnie Amorado not only gives us the broad outlines of corruption and its consequences in Philippine society, but also develops a detailed understanding of the specific varieties of corrupt situations, individuals, and techniques that confront would-be reformers. His discussion shows us just how entrenched and complex corruption problems have become, and why they are not the sorts of clear exceptions to the norm that they might be in some other places. We also get a clear picture of why past efforts at reform have had indifferent results, and why the common view that corruption can be “tackled” or “fixed” with sufficient effort and good intentions overlooks persistent historical, institutional, and systemic difficulties. At the same time, Ronnie Amorado develops positive ideas and proposals — none of them simple or easy, but all rooted in the complicated realities of wealth, power, and corruption in the Philippines — that should be the subject of serious analysis and debate. 

Every society on earth has corruption. No country has all the answers when it comes to good governance and reform. It is crucial to remember that corruption does not explain everything that is bad in any society. No more does it negate all that is good. There are, at the moment, reasons for hope and optimism in the Philippines — a country, after all, whose corruption realities have much in common with those of many other emerging societies. For that reason the efforts of a new administration, and the opportunities that may emerge for Filipinos themselves to step up their demands for better government, will be closely watched around the world. Those of us who care about those efforts, and who are looking for ways to support committed officials, businesspeople, and citizens as they continue their push for reform, will all benefit from a close and thoughtful reading of Ronnie Amorado’s work.