Original Sin

Corruption runs through our very marrow. It informs human myth and religion; it shapes legal codes and social ones; it is a perennial cause of outrage by the governed because it is a perennial custom among their governors. “From Verres to Nixon”, writes Carlo Alberto Brioschi in his excellent book Corruption: A Short History (Brookings, 263 pp., $14.95), “the basic problem is always the same.”

Identifying that basic problem is the ambitious task Brioschi has set himself. Given the rise of bad governance worldwide — and its vigorous, ever-worsening, and highly public practice by the current president of the United States — the need for such analysis grows clearer by the week. While every person, educated or otherwise, is familiar with the idea of corruption and with at least a few instantiations of it, we all lack a map of corruption throughout history drawn from public records, philosophy, and literature. Brioschi has drawn this map; he makes connections about how corruption occurs, who it harms, and who it helps across time and place.

So what is the root of all this evil? Not love of money; not even money itself. Brioschi describes it using a phrase from sociology: the law of reciprocity. As long as humans live side by side, they will traffic — be it in material goods, money, or favors. Indeed, in Brioschi’s reading, the culture of corruption begins with a far more innocuous practice: that of the gift, which he sees as intimately related to the practice of religious sacrifice. But a less explicit theme is that the rise of advanced political and economic structures themselves amplify vastly the means, motive, and opportunity to bribe, steal, and lie. He opens his book with a quotation from Kautilya, a Brahmin and bureaucrat of the fourth century BCE, which compares the invisibility and ubiquity of governmental corruption to the act of fishes drinking water as they swim in it. These very qualities come to define much of Brioschi’s documentary inquiry.

Kautilya is not alone. He is joined in Brioschi’s book by Hesiod, Plato, Aristophanes, Plutarch, Sallust, Tacitus, Augustine of Hippo, Martin Luther, Thomas Jefferson, Joseph Roth, Honoré de Balzac, Emile Zola, Guy de Maupassant, Pietro Badoglio, and the writers of The Simpsons (that list is just a partial one, by the way). Whether tracking the scandal of Harpalus’s gold that roiled Athens at around Kautilya's time, pursuing the complex connections of state power and illicit finance at the end of the Bourbon dynasty, showing the freedom Italian and German fascism granted their high-ranking apparatchiks to appropriate wealth as inseparable from the movement’s ideological goals, or closing the circle by linking the systemic problems underlying the 2008 financial crisis to the long-standing inability of states to keep parallel structures out of the body politic, Brioschi paints a sinister, seriocomic picture. One of the most memorable modern illustrations he uses comes from a study taken of the parking habits of U.N. diplomats in New York. This study concluded that the willingness of a diplomat to flout parking regulations serves as an index of the weakness of governance in the state he represents — with such precision, Brioschi notes, that its results mirror those reached by Transparency International in its annual global rankings.  

His approach — which mingles cultural history with a feulletoniste’s almost olfactory sense for the telling, brilliant detail — avoids the trap that so many modern chroniclers of old faults fall into: the inclination to be polemical. Brioschi, to be sure, does not approach the subject without a point of view. He has no patience with the idea that corruption may sometimes be beneficial to the subjects or citizens of the elites among and between which acts of bribery, patronage, simony, libertinage, and the like occur. But this conviction, whether you regard it as admirable or naive, does not get in the way of his fundamental project, one far more ambitious than finger-pointing. Corruption is as much a history of human systems as it is of the crimes small and large that the concentration of power seems to breed. Its treatment of the Roman governor of Sicily Verres, whom Brioschi calls a "bribe-o-crat,” is emblematic:

It is calculated that he stole from the Roman tax rolls more than 400 million sesterces (a legionary at the time earned around 900 sesterces a year) and looted the province with scientific and methodical determination, and this certainly should have been enough to make him stand out as an exception. Yet even Cicero, his accuser, who had every imaginable interest in presenting him as an exemplary case of greed taking power, said that his conduct only represented the norm in the Roman empire. . . The absence of a proper bureaucratic apparatus inevitably resulted in the delegation of numerous administrative functions, from collecting taxes to issuing contracts for the construction of public works. It was therefore understood that magistrates would get rich during their terms in office. In Verres' case . . . it is said that the bribes offered to the jurors were insufficient to win his acquittal.

The insouciantly aphoristic and erudite phrase is a hallmark of Brioschi’s book; on nearly every page a lapidary and cutting remark can be found. (To say nothing of the blackly comic acronym that can be formed from the book’s full title.) Corruption is a kind of public history written with journalistic agility and concision: accessible but never diluted; learned but never wearing that learning heavily. This is a form nearly defunct in American letters. It has long been supplanted by thinkpieces and heartfelt, outraged cris de coeur. (The book, it should be noted as well, has at least some kinship with the splendid anthological works of early modernity: Anatomy of Melancholy, by Robert Burton, or Urn Burial, by Thomas Browne.) But a cool-headed and forensic approach, animated by sarcasm and irony more than by spleen and evincing a genuine interest in understanding the subject rather than in merely condemning it produces far deeper, starker impressions in readers than transports of fury — no matter how sincere or well-intentioned.