Summary of Good (and Bad) Governance in Europe: The Historical Designs of Corruption Control

If good governance is the exception, not the rule, how have a small group of countries achieved corruption control? Alina Mungiu-Pippidi, Professor of Democracy Studies at the Hertie School of Governance, discussed this topic in her lecture titled “Good (and Bad) Governance in Europe: The Historical Designs of Corruption Control” based on her recently published book The Quest for Good Governance on February 29, 2016. Following the lecture was a panel discussion, which included Timothy Frye, Marshall D. Shulman Professor of Post-Soviet Foreign Policy, Columbia University; Paul Lagunes, Assistant Professor, Columbia SIPA; Isabela Mares, Professor of Political Science, Columbia University; and Adam Tooze, Kathryn and Shelby Cullom David Professor of History, Columbia University. The discussion was moderated by Jan Svejnar, Director of the Center on Global Economic Governance, which organized the event in collaboration with the European Institute and the East Central European Center.

Professor Mungiu-Pippidi began by discussing the belief that corruption, understood as the systematic abuse of public authority to channel universal public resources to particular private interests, is actually the natural, if suboptimal, state of governance. She focuses on the fact that government thus starts with patrimonialism (bad governance) and may evolve to ethical universalism (good governance) over time. The issue, however, is that only a handful of societies around the world have been able to build the systems of corruption control that lead to a successful evolution. She noted that some scholars have considered that a solution to this issue would be modernity, however her research has shown that this is mostly untrue. This led her to look more deeply at systemic corruption and consider the following research questions:

  1. Why do some societies manage to control corruption, while other societies do not and remain systematically corrupt?
  2. Is the superior performance of this group of countries a result of what they do or who they are?
  3. How has control of corruption been built historically and what lessons can we derive from this for current anticorruption policies?

Professor Mungiu-Pippidi emphasized two strategies that she took in trying to answer these questions. First, she tried to understand the context of the countries she was studying. Second, she tried to determine what could be learned from the countries that, largely based on World Bank indicators, were considered to be achievers of good governance. She then discussed some of her findings, in particular the three different modes of governance: Monarchy, Elite Republics, and Democracy. She emphasized that corruption control can be achieved in each of the three settings, however they require different policy considerations and pose distinct challenges. Professor Mungiu-Pippidi closed her lecture by stating that a smart country will prevent corruption before it happens, rather than try to reduce corruption after it is already rampant.

The panel discussion began with Professor Mares emphasizing the difficulty in understanding how to control corruption due to the fact that it is multi-dimensional. She noted that, for example, in looking just at electoral corruption alone there are really a bundle of irregularities, such as stuffing ballot boxes and voter intimidation, that would need to addressed. She also pointed out that a major flaw in the argument discussed is that there are likely no incentives for politicians to actually implement any reforms to combat corruption, as elected politicians benefit from the status quo.

Next, Professor Frye discussed three paradoxes that are related to the issues discussed: 1) Foreign aid against corruption is most effective where it is least needed; 2) It is easiest to study corruption where it is least harmful; and 3) The best solutions to corruption are those that we are least equipped to put into practice. He also noted some potential pitfalls in conducting analysis such as Professor Mungiu-Pippidi’s since historical patterns of state building and increasing accountability from good countries takes many years, but studying it now provides at most a fifteen year window of data. It would be difficult to know if this time horizon is long enough to see the impacts being looked for.

Then Professor Tooze went on to highlight the role of the military in the dynamics being looked at, as they are often considered an agency which is committed to a different type of ethic and thereby immune to corruption. He wonders what the implications of this might be in terms of using policy to implement corruption control.

Finally, Professor Lagunes noted that Professor Mungiu-Pippidi’s work seems overly pessimistic of the principal-agent model despite examples of honest principals included in her book. He also expressed discomfort in the fact that Chile was included as a success case without an accompanying critique of Augusto Pinochet’s efficiency-and-integrity-by-any means approach.

Appreciative of the questions and comments, both from the panelists and from members of the audience, Professor Mungiu-Pippidi offered some additional thoughts prior to concluding a well-attended and high-energy event.


- Samantha Weinberg, MPA '16