Corruption is everywhere. It is one of the most extreme manifestations and a major endemic social disease of our time. It afflicts individuals and collectives, governments and businesses, and causes enormous loss and injustice. It destabilises many governments, and is an important cause of their collapse into gangsterism and tyranny. Indeed, it can be argued that the corruption of some key element of our civilisation could cause its downfall. We had a premonition of this in the great financial collapse of 2008–9. Then corruption at many levels enabled fantasy and greed, fuelled by computers and rationalised by junk mathematics, to bring down the world’s banking system.

Can nothing be done about corruption? Frequently it is so blatant, that reformers can believe in the simple remedy: clean out the bad men, replace them by good men, and all will be well. And sometimes that works, at least for a while. The rankings of Transparency International, the anti-corruption agency, do show real improvements. But the evidence shows that corruption is systemic, and that good people as well as bad are engaged in corrupt practices. However, there are variations in the degrees of corruption, its prime locations in society, and the style of its operations. So it is not a simple infection, and better understandings might yield better management.

How are we to approach the understanding of corruption? We can start with the obvious example: public officials and politicians enriching themselves, either by simple theft or by selling favours. However it happens, it is a betrayal of trust, in this case of the civil service and of the electorate. But suppose that they are in a situation where they could not even have got to their position or kept it, without engaging in corrupt practices, and anyway where no-one trusted them to begin with? This example is the first lesson in the paradoxical character of corruption, so different from what is taught in schools and proclaimed by public figures, about society and its institutions.

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