Sarah Chayes on government corruption and its implications

Sarah Chayes spoke at the Hebrew Center about how people need to change the fundamental ways they think of corruption. —Sophia McCarron

Corruption was the word of the hour at the final talk in the 2017 Summer Institute Speaker Series at the Hebrew Center last week. Sarah Chayes, a senior associate in the Democracy and Rule of Law Program and the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace spoke on how her work in Afghanistan revealed how some governments are really criminal organizations in costume.

“The meaning of money has changed,” Ms. Chayes said. “The only thing that matters is that you have money, not where it came from.” This modern attitude toward money creates a fertile climate for corruption to grow; however, corruption isn’t a new concept. Machiavelli and other early political strategists stressed how dangerous corruption is to the stability of a state.

“This is as old as written history,” said Ms. Chayes, “but it’s different now. We’re not talking about chump change.” The World Bank estimates that businesses and individuals pay $1.5 trillion a year in bribes, which accounts for 2 percent of global gross domestic product.

The popular lexicon for corruption frames the issue as an affliction hindering an otherwise healthy state. “What I’m not talking about is a corrosion or cancer that’s filtering into a healthy body,” said Ms. Chayes. Instead, she argued that sophisticated, integrated criminal networks are masquerading as governments.

The power of corrupt governments ebbs and flows, however, Ms. Chayes argued that we are experiencing a boom similar to the late 1800s Gilded Age. Think robber barons. After the fall of communism, Ms. Chayes proposed, countries could amass more wealth, and a cultural shift occurred, allowing the opinion that greed is good. “You have a suction of resources leaving developing countries,” said Ms. Chayes.

Terrorist organizations such as Boko Haram and al-Qaeda thrive in resource vacuums such as these. “In Kandahar,” Ms. Chayes recounted, “you have to work really hard not to join the Taliban.” She described citizens getting shaken down multiple times a day by the police so that they could pay up the line to their superiors. “They don’t ask politely,” she said. “It’s humiliating.” These kinds of abuses of power range from bribes to sextortion. Extremist groups capitalize on this anger. “You want to shoot the cop, and they tell you to shoot the cop,” said Ms. Chayes. “Not only does it give you the opportunity, it gives you the argument.” Religious extremist groups blame the country’s corruption on the government’s secularity, Ms. Chayes argued, and in that situation, “you’re not doing a comparative political analysis.”

Ms. Chayes cautioned against considering this rampant corruption foreign to the U.S. While American citizens don’t get shaken down multiple times a day, Ms. Chayes said, “we have a tendency in the U.S. to say thank you for our institutions and our laws; that’s our bulwark against this. The problem with law is that it can get really specific.”

Strictly defining terms, Ms. Chayes argued, allowed for Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell’s corruption convictions to be overturned by the Supreme Court eight to zero. The reasoning was that the terms of corruption were too broad; the case did not have an explicit agreement of bribery. “There is no doubt that this case is distasteful; it may be worse than that. But our concern is not with tawdry tales of Ferraris, Rolexes, and ball gowns. It is instead with the broader legal implications of the government’s boundless interpretation of the federal bribery statute,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the court opinion. “A more limited interpretation of the term ‘official act’ leaves ample room for prosecuting corruption, while comporting with the text of the statute and the precedent of this Court.” Setting up meetings with public officials, holding events, or calling a public official didn’t count as an official act.

Such a narrow definition of an official act threatens the American government’s integrity. In closing, Ms. Chayes said, “the whole Constitution was written by and for the people. Let’s keep it that way.”