Corruption is the pernicious rot that bedevils even the most “civilized” of our modern societies. At its worst it deprives millions of even the most basic dignity, but it always perverts the course of democratic will, our intentions, the peoples’ good. Far from being a compulsory attribute of life, corruption is the outcome of human tendencies that we can, indeed we must, intentionally construct our societies to minimize. After all, corruption is just another form of crime, and we do plenty to deter other criminal behaviour.
Corruption is the misappropriation of other peoples’ money, the perversion of standard processes and the manipulation of good intentions. Like all crime, it is dependent on two primary factors: the opportunity and the motive. Given that the motive is part of an internal process in the individuals who commit the crime (that’s the bit used to excuse it), structural solutions must focus on the opportunity (that’s the bit we can do something about). The opportunity for corruption stems from the confluence of two conditions:
- the abstraction of the decision point from those affected,
- a lack of oversight and transparency.
When decisions get condensed into a small group (such as Gaddafi’s family in Tripoli, the policy elite in Washington DC, the super-bankers in the City of London or NY) they become subject only to the oversight of others within that group. It is inevitable, even desirable, that some decisions affecting millions are taken centrally, but we should be cautious about any centralization of decision making on the understanding that this propensity for undersight exists. Oversight takes time and resources, and when decisions are clustered in a small group the likelihood that decision density will exceed oversight capacity is greatly increased.
A decision taken at a substantial distance from those affected is less likely to be questioned effectively. Even if the interested parties have the resources to review the decision, they cannot access the remote decision makers. And visa versa, if the decision maker is not subject to the effects of their decision, they inevitably care less about the impact.
Spreading decision making out to the lowest effective layer is the key to improving decision quality and reducing corruption. The absence of an integrated framework of distributed democratic power, that allows for the placement of decision making at the most effective level, is the most glaring hole in our current constructs for democracy; and we must remedy that if we are to make the progress we need to make on so many fronts. Those who are starting now to implement democratic systems for their societies should pay close attention to the critical importance of formally integrating distributed democracy, because just democratically electing a national president is likely to do very little to improve their condition.
Multi-layered representation is an important development for 21st century democracy, and it’s time we started to incorporate it into our thinking and our demands for our futures.