Corruption of and by democracy

My article “Cognitive Corruption and Deliberative Democracy” has now been published in the journal Social Philosophy and Policy, in an issue dedicated to corruption.

I may be wrong, but I believe it’s the first thing to defend deliberative democracy with the argument that citizens “take off their party hats”. In other words, if we have a random cross-section of (say) 200 or so citizens, debating the pros and cons of a policy, they are more likely to try to argue the merits of the case, rather than being driven by what their party would like, what would put opposing parties in a difficult position, and so on.


Picture (unrelated): Sándor Molnár, “Dragon Slayer” (1966), in the Hungarian National Gallery (from my recent trip to Budapest)

When he read this paper, Mike Munger – a classical liberal/libertarian opposed to deliberative democracy – said “I don’t like this paper, because it makes me think positively about deliberative democracy”. Praise indeed!

The article also redefines corruption, not as “misuse of public office for private gain”, the standard definition, but “neglect of public duty for non-public gain” – a broader idea which also includes many historical understandings which the standard definition excludes. (“Office” comes from the Latin officium, meaning duty.)

The article is partly historical, looking at ideas of what I call “cognitive corruption” (corruption of judgement) in the work of Machiavelli, Hobbes, Bentham and Mill. They have some really juicy insights.


A key idea is that many commitments – including commitments to parties – can corrupt our impartiality. Parties are probably inevitable in modern democracies, at least for the time being, but in some respects they seriously weaken democracy and rationality.

Here’s eight key ideas from the paper:

1) cognitive corruption—the corruption of judgment;
2) auto-corruption, and impartiality potentially being corrupted by having a
stake in something;
3) corruption not as misuse of public office for private gain, but neglect of public
duty for non-public gain;
4) corruption for party gain;
5) a system of party corruption;
6) the arbitrariness of party policy positions, with decisions often made on inauthentic
grounds rather than being driven by the force of the better argument;
7) deliberative democracy as a non-hierarchical method of making decisions
where citizens remove their party hats; and
8) the importance of getting the right dispositions, not just the right institutions/

The paper is in the Winter 2018 issue of Social Philosophy and Policy, but was only published recently.


Cognitive corruption in Parliament

Philip Hensher, writing in the Independent, gives an important and unusual take on corruption. He’s discussing the ‘charade’ by which some MPs accept money for making Early Day Motions: these MPs know that Early Day Motions achieve nothing, yet imply otherwise. Hensher states:

When innocent outsiders are given the impression that something is being done for them, it hardly matters whether they have paid any money or not. They are being wilfully deceived. Corruption does not start with the handing over of sums of money.

I don’t know about ‘innocent’ outsiders, and I don’t agree that it ‘hardly matters’ whether or not they’ve paid money. But the more important point is Hensher’s penetrating comment that we shouldn’t restrict the idea of corruption to exchanges of money.

He’s discussing what I have called ‘cognitive corruption’ – the distortion of judgement. This was once a fairly common notion of corruption. For example, Thomas Hobbes often talks about corruption in terms of failures of reason, e.g. a judge not seeing that accepting a bribe will lead to a state of nature, or inappropriate passions, e.g. a judge feeling sorry for a defendant and ruling in the defendant’s favour – being corrupted by pity, as Hobbes puts it.

envelopeHensher is discussing something different: being corrupted by faulty information. Here, the corruptor is the person who provides the faulty information. Hensher’s point is that MPs who accept money for making Early Day Motions are corrupt in two senses: they distort the judgement of someone (cognitive corruption) who then gives them a bribe (political corruption).

Obviously, what matters most in these cases is the political corruption, but it’s important to realise that political corruption happens for a reason, and one reason is cognitive corruption. And in these case, let’s be thankful for the cognitive corruption, since the bribers are wasting their money on something which isn’t going to affect policy.