Are Leaders or Followers to Blame for Corruption?

.Are Leaders or Followers to Blame for Corruption?

Grimot Nane

Weeks Centre for Social and Policy Studies

Corruption is unsatisfactorily defined as the “misuse of public office for private gain” because it suggests corruption only happens in the public sector [1]. But the definition also indicates that the power of [high] public office is the starting point for corruption. Corruption is characteristically a top-down not bottom-up phenomenon.

We often read and hear some people say “Corruption in a nation is the problem of followers.” Or “every nation deserves the leadership it gets”. Such statements demonstrate an incomplete or unfair understanding of corruption and maybe ‘power’- supporting sophistry. How can lawmakers, law interpreters and law executors, the legislators, judges and presidents, respectively, of a nation and their clients be exempt from the blame or be the least culpable for corruption?

When Oskar Schindler systematically bribed German soldiers in Hitler’s Nazi Germany to allow Jews escape being sent to concentration camps, he engaged in corruption for a thoroughly ‘noble purpose’ and such benign acts with noble motivations are described by Geoffrey Hodgson [1] as “noble corruption”. Instances of noble corruption are numerous and occur daily in Nigeria and elsewhere. Who would say Oskar Schindler’s success in saving the lives of some Jews was ignoble. Or his actions were responsible for the corruption in practice during the Third Reich.

There is also ‘extortion as corruption’. Extortion occurs when persons in power can coerce clients to give them bribes either by telling them directly, using a proxy or resorting to tactics that create desperation for the client, such as unnecessary delays. Hence the term ‘speed money’. I remember a PhD student awarded a full Nigerian government scholarship to study at a UK university. The student arrives a semester late because he could only get the scholarship disbursements to him after he had to pay an extortionate $2000 bribe. Can one blame this brilliant science/engineering scholar for Nigeria’s hyper-corruption? Yet, the delusional nonsense commonly exists that if a public official extorts a petty bribe from you, you are as bad as a billion-dollar thieving politician.

People hate parting with the monies extorted from them by bribe seekers. Yes, they do! Most of the petty corruption is extortion. People even hate paying taxes. Common sense and rationality will prove this to be correct, effortlessly. Followers have no power, and the one in authority is, as a rule, the prime mover in a corrupt transaction [2]. Followers mostly have no choice in the arena of corruption and often a lot to lose. Corporations seeking disproportionate access to state resources corruptly and the corruption of politicians/executives do not exist for those who believe corruption is a problem of followers.

Power relations between leaders and followers are the stuff of downward causation, the boss pronounces, and the followers obey. It happens even to very “enlightened” people. Upward causation is possible whereby followers influence leaders in cases such as elections in which voting corrupt leaders out of office is possible. However, it is only a small part of leader-follower power relations and often inconsequential.

The Logic of Collective Action by Mancur Olson [3] evidences the fact that small, efficient special interest groups are better at organising themselves and efficiently seeking their narrow interests than larger groups such as customers, voters and taxpayers. Corruption requires a coordinated efficiency of its own to be successful. Within this dimension of efficiency, corrupt leaders create externalities that not only encourages, entrenches perpetuates corrupt successors. But they also make it undesirable for upright and conscientious persons to aspire to public office. The ‘free-riders’ Olson talks about, or the ‘lucky citizens’ Peter Ekeh [4] talks about are the politicians and executives that steal resources meant for the public and private sectors at the expense of the citizenry and taxpayers. The arena of politics is the arena of the power elite, not followers.

Notions of an ‘uncorrupted politics’ is faulty, according to Mark Philp [5]; there is no society free from corruption. Has there ever been an incorruptible leader that did not emerge from a corrupt society? Gerald Caiden [6] states that the spotlight on corruption as a public phenomenon is a recent thing, corrupt societies and leaders are as old as civilisation itself. Robert Nield [7] persuasively proposes that North-western Europe is unusual in being relatively very clean compared to elsewhere on the globe with regards to corruption, not because of the goodness of the leaders but due to the existential threat of ever imminent war from neighbouring countries in Europe necessitating efficient [militarily organised] governments. Such good work is the endeavour of leaders with yje support of followers, not the other way round.

The power of existential threats is why Karl Popper [8] in the Open Society and its Enemies counsels that to get a government that has the public interest at its heart one should not seek good persons since those who usually seek power are either mediocre or venal. Electorates need leaders to see them as capable of existential threats. That is how governments can eliminate or reduce corruption in society. Followers do not have the will or organising capacity to stop the social ills militating against a just society. Only the ruling elites and radical elites have that capacity.

Followers support anyone in power. For leaders whether they are conservatives, liberals, socialists, communists, monarchists, stratocrats, theocrats, dictators. Or republicans, revolutionists, anarchists, you name it, followers will follow them. Downward causation often undergoes underestimation because followers believe they have freedoms and sustenance. If leaders are corrupt and encourage a culture of corruption in their followers, what happens? If leaders are incorruptible and encourage civic morality/responsibility in their followers persistently and energetically, what happens?

Are Leaders or Followers to Blame for Corruption?

It is time the responsibility for corruption lays where it best fits. Societies that move from the status of being “highly corrupted” to “highly uncorrupted” do so by establishing institutions. Institutions that are invariably underpin “goal consistent ethical rules” that couple with thoroughgoing civic morality. Such is the work of government and leaders, not followers.


2nd April 2015



[1] Hodgson, G M & Jiang, S (2007). The Economics of Corruption and the Corruption of Economics: An Institutionalist Perspective, Journal of Economic Issues Vol. Xli No. 4

[2] Rose-Ackerman, S (1975). The Economics of Corruption, Journal of Public Economics (4) 187

[3] Olson, M (1965). The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups, Cambridge: Harvard Economic Studies 124, Harvard University Press

[4] Ekeh, P P (1975). Colonialism and the Two Publics in Africa: A Theoretical Statement, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 17, 1

[5] Philp, M (1997). Defining Political Corruption, Political Studies, 45, (Special Issue), 435-62

[6] Caiden, G E (1988). Towards a General Theory of Corruption, Asian Journal of Public Administration, Vol 10 (1)

[7] Nield, R (2002). Public Corruption: The Dark Side of Social Evolution; Anthem Press

[8] Popper, K (1945). The Open Society and its Enemies, Routledge, London

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