Discussion on Michael Johnston’s ‘Syndromes of corruption‘
December 07th 2009 – Discussion on Michael Johnston’s book ‘Syndromes of Corruption’
As Knowledgecentre within Saxion University, we are very much interested in new research books. Michael Johnston’s book is already published a few years ago, but still refreshing. The research team has discussed the book, the reporting paper written by Michel van Hulten can be found here.
091113, Paper on Johnston’s book after discussion of 13 November 2009 in SAXION
Michel van Hulten
Syndromes of Corruption
On 13 November 2009, eight staff of SAXION, including lectors Governance Johan Wempe and Michel van Hulten, assembled to discuss the book by Michael Johnston, the other participants have been (in alphabetical order): Frans Eijkelhof, Gerald Hopster, Oksana Popovych, Willeke Slingerland, Bruce Rinsampessy, and Patricia Wiebinga.
This paper makes an effort to summarize views expressed, to conclude on the basis of reading
the book and discussing its contents, and to progress in understanding of the phenomenon of
corruption in our world-society.
The practical purpose of our meeting was that we are preparing an invitational international
seminar, to be held on 8-9 April 2010 in SAXION, in which we intend to spend one day on
‘defining and measuring corruption’ and one day on ‘corruption in the Netherlands’. The choice
had already been made to invite Professor Michael Johnston for a keynote-address during this
seminar as his book published in 2005 intrigued us. Luckily he has accepted to come. We want
now to know as well as possible his thoughts which will be helpful to structuring the seminar
All had read the book. We also had available a 5.000-word review by Michel van Hulten,
published in: Justitiële Verkenningen of WODC2, and an agenda, working notes and 14 theses
drawn from the book by Gerald Hopster, assistant to the project. (All this is available in Dutch
Michael Johnston, Syndromes of corruption; wealth, power, and democracy, XIII en 267 p.
Cambridge University Press, November 2005, ISBN-13 978-0-521-85334-7 hardback and 61859-5 paperback, and ISBN-
10 0-521-85334-6 hardback/ 61859-2 paperback
For more information, see www.cambridge.org/9780521618595.
In: Justitiële Verkenningen of WODC – Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek- en Documentatiecentrum van het ministerie van
Justitie, (Scientific Research- and Documentation Centre of the Dutch ministry of Justice) nr. 7/05, jrg. 31, nr. 7 2005,
The general feeling was that it should be appreciated in the scientific world dealing with the
corruption phenomenon that Johnston tries to get away from the multitude of studies produced in
the latest thirty years. As he mentions, nearly all are either statistically based analyses, or casestudies
of a small part of the phenomenon. Adding more studies along these lines of thinking
does not add any more much to our knowledge and understanding (‘having reached a plateau’) of
the corruption phenomenon.
However, why is it that he speaks of a ‘plateau’ (on which you can build?) and not of a ‘ceiling’ or
‘plafond’ (the end of a space?).
We also support his view, although he does not say so very explicitly, when inherently rejecting
the World Bank thinking that x-percent of corruption reduction results in y-percent of economic
growth and/or z-percent of democratic growth.
In short (very much abbreviated!), Johnston constructs four syndromes, possible coherent
apparitions of the phenomenon, and looks into statistical evidence about a great number of
countries whether and how countries fit into these four. Those countries that do not fit any one of
the four (some 70) are dumped and excluded from the following research process and
description, (some methodological colleagues will not accept such a behavior!) but some 100
countries do fit and are grouped in the four syndromes according to their characteristics as
defined and found.
We appreciate this novel approach and also the openness of Johnston that he does not exclude
that someone might formulate one or more additional ‘syndromes’ which could than house the
other 70, or maybe start a totally different distribution over all syndromes. His book really answers
his and our need to offer a base for continuing discussion.
We also appreciate that he sees the links between corruption in rich countries and in poor
countries: ‘Some of the corruption problems of those poorer and less democratic countries
originate in more developed parts of the world’. It is clear in his work that it is too simple to defend
the thesis that it is the poor countries that are the evil ones and that the rich are corruption-free.
His constructs in four syndromes make clear that corruption is present in many forms. And that all
individuals and all enterprises are susceptible to corrupt behavior. This might also be the reason
why the image is wrong, created by ranking lists of countries (of which the one made yearly by
Transparency International in Berlin, is world-wide best-known), that corruption is in particular a
problem of the South.
It is probably our European way of observing and interpreting the facts, that we ask whether
Johnston’s approach is maybe not too much American in placing ‘wealth’ so central in the
concepts that he uses.
If we think of power, and the origin of power, we see many more factors that can explain power to
corrupt. Lineage/birth (in feudal systems, but still also in the most developed modern countries),
education (‘nurture’), talent (‘nature’), organization and position in organizations, sex (males have
more power than females, does this explains why females are less corrupt?), religion, knowledge
(languages) in multicultural societies, tradition.
Inherent in Johnston’s work is that he does not need a definition of corruption. Obviously he could
use several, a different one for each syndrome. After his introduction of the Four Syndromes he
proceeds to give different ones, see descriptions on the pages 1, 11 and 12 of his book on
corruption, which could eventually be seen as definitions. However, this part is not directly linked
to the four syndromes. Curiosity whether he will define corruption under each syndrome remains
The discussion of this problem of defining corruption is well-served by the remarks made on page
163. Also the positioning of China in Group 4 of Official Moguls, gave rise to discussion among
us, maybe related to our views of 2009 (based on more recent information about changes in that
country) in stead of a classification based on data seven to ten years older, as in the book. Would
China now be in box 3 of the ‘Oligarchs and Clans’, in stead of in box 4 of ‘Official Moguls’?
Could we say that the classification of countries as in the book is representing the state of affairs
as in about the year 2000 and does not represent any process-thinking or evolution from one
grouping to the other?
The thought was expressed that if anyone wishes to quantify corruption (also Johnston poses the
question ‘is corruption growing?’), that in that case you absolutely need a definition. You have to
know what your subject of measurement is in case you want to measure.
A problem here might be that in a Court of Justice the need for a definition differs from the need
as felt in socio-economic and political research. The one is needed as otherwise the judge cannot
reach a verdict, the other one for social and political scientists has another character as they
approach reality in a different way, more open for differentiation.
Corruption in line with local custom?
Moreover, we see here the problem that in at least the syndromes 3 (Oligarchs and Clans) and 4
(Official Moguls), the norms are set by the rulers to comfort them. This helps to make corruption
acceptable as those in power create themselves the circumstances and rules allowing for abuse
of power. Or are these rules much older and date back to historical cultural experiences in those
Do major multinational companies do the same in Influence Market-countries by lobbying for
lawmaking that suits their needs, whereas the regular citizen has to trespass the law if (s)he
wants to be corrupt? Does this phenomenon appear also in the double morality of companies that
at home do what the law prescribes, but behave in other countries, where they dispose of more
power, differently (an observation made several times by OECD and TI)?
This leads inevitably to the question whether it is just countries that can be classified in four
syndromes, or whether this is also true for the major multinationals in business or other global
institutions like the churches, trade unions, associations as Red Cross and Amnesty
In general the feeling was that the differentiation in group 3 and group 4 is a bit artificial.
Countries can easily switch from the one to the other? Is there such a big difference between
these two syndromes as between them together and the other two? Could 3 and 4 be merged in
one syndrome or is that not defendable?
Johnston and the CPI?
What we could not understand is that Johnston on the one hand rejects the CPI-construct as
made and published yearly by TI (see his discussion on page 20) but at the same time and same
page, he adds that he will nevertheless make limited use of the CPI. This approach results in a
rather important graph on page 34 about the relationship between CPI and Human Development
Index of UNDP proving a positive correlation between the two. Was this not exactly what
Johnston earlier already (and again later in his book) fundamentally rejects?
Corruption and poverty ?
We also wondered about the tables B (page 226) and C (page 227), in particular about the lines
with data on GDP/capita, Net FDI/capital and primary exports. Do the data on these lines
contradict that corruption is not linked specifically to poverty, an assumption or a conclusion we
would like to share with the author. It appears that the average for the countries in Syndrome 1
Influence Markets shows consistently rich countries and in the other three poorer from 2 to 4. Did
this factor of poverty slip into the observations of facts unintentionally, or hidden by other factors?
We loved that you mentioned already on p. 28 that you ‘will discuss several established
democracies in which politicians trade in bureaucratic and or legislative access made all the more
valuable by the strength of the institutions involved’. Certainly for us, it was interesting to see that
the Netherlands figure in the ‘Influence Market’-syndrome, and Belgium under ‘Elite Cartel’. We
are familiar with these societies and economies and know that corruption in our countries is not
poverty-driven. Nevertheless, also this is an interesting subject to be discussed between you and
us in the seminar. That you conclude that Belgium belongs under another of your syndrome-titles
than the Netherlands also attracts attention and will be discussed.
Hierarchy of Syndromes?
We assume that the four syndromes are not conceived in a kind of hierarchy from bad (4), to
better (3) and (2), to best (1). We also assume that it was not the intention that countries could
move (improve?) from one to another syndrome to show that they become better or worse.
Is this correct?
Links between liberalization, democratization and corruption?
The discussion of growing liberalization of the market and growth of the economy, growing
democratization and freedom for the people, and diminishing power-based corruption is
interesting. We do not believe, like Johnston, that there are direct relations between these
phenomena. However, could he portray more cases in depth to prove that these relationships do
not exist one to one? In general the book was found ‘too general’ with regard to the main thesis.
More specification in results would be welcome. In this connection also the question was raised
whether the selection of the three countries to be ‘discussion-cases’ under each syndrome is not
rather weak if the explanation is that they should be from as ‘many different regions of the earth
as possible’, from the ‘availability of information’, and from ‘inherent importance’?
Maybe Johnston has full case studies available of all (?), most (?) or more (?) countries
represented in his lists on the pages 221-224, than the three per syndrome that are used now to
illustrate his thesis. If so, could we profit from this broader base of knowledge?
‘Our’ syndrome: ‘Influence Market ’
This latest conclusion lay at the origin of the request to ask professor Johnston to spend his time
in our seminar in particular on the ‘Influence Market Syndrome’, more or less ‘our’ syndrome.
Could he be more specific on the character and limitations of this syndrome? Why and how is it
different from the other three? Does this help to explain why so many people think that the
countries enumerated on page 221, all affluent, all ‘western’ culture (also Costa Rica and
Uruguay in that list) do not all experience and know corruption ? What is the size of the corruption
phenomenon in these Influence Market-countries? How does corruption influence our world at
home and abroad? Does the existence (?) of this syndrome explain why the countries listed on
page 221 under this heading, mostly are the same as listed by TI as least corrupt?
Does this mean that our observation of corruption when it deals with our own environment is
blurred? If we don’t see corruption in our country, or deny the existence of corruption in our own
environment, how blind are we? Are we blind?
Last Updated (Friday, 24 December 2010 12:15)