The term corruption gets tossed around liberally in law and politics. Most commonly it is used to refer to a specific human activity such as bribery, and in this usage it is frequently employed to distinguish legal and political processes in the United States from those in other, less pure nations. It is true that, by and large, the legal and political systems in the US have become freer of corruption of various sorts -- buying and selling votes or influence, looking the other way for a price, and so forth -- than they once were, and generally freer of corruption than other systems (in the post-Soviet world, for instance, or in some Latin American or African nations). Though it is always important to recognize that our history is not best characterized as one of steady improvement, moving closer and closer to the ideal system -- and pockets of corruption or corrupt individuals continue to come to light now and then, exposed by whistleblowers or the media -- there can be little question that much of what we see today in American law and politics is relatively clean (if not pure).
But there is another meaning to the term corruption that we should recover -- a meaning rooted deep in our history as a nation. This is the notion of political corruption as a disease of the body politic -- not a matter of isolated acts, or even systemic acts by individuals, but one of overall sickness, a decaying, degeneration, or debasement of the system itself. In this usage, corruption contrasts with civic virtue -- it is a vice that can undermine, even destroy, a polity. It can be found in both individuals and the systems they inhabit, but its real critical bite lies in its use to describe a system as a whole.
As J. Peter Euben has shown in his contribution to Political Innovation and Conceptual Change (1989), the concept of corruption pervades ancient Greek considerations of political association. The concept provided the fundamental ground upon which Thucydides explains the decline of Athens. Thucydides' history, in fact, provides the first systematic analysis of corruption, of the degeneration of a polity over time as a result of the choices (or failures to choose) of a once-virtuous people. But the opus classicus for the analysis of corruption is Aristotle's Politics. Euben offers a succinct summary of Aristotelian political theory as it is applied to the idea of corruption. Aristotle, it turns out not surprisingly, has much to say that we moderns should heed and his notion of corruption offers an interesting basis for the examination of contemporary constitutional democracy.
Aristotle works by way of contrast between a healthy polity and one that is corrupt, and his view of political health and decay helped define an entire tradition -- the so-called republican tradition that lay at the basis of the political views of the American founders. Aristotle lays out a number of conditions of health in a polity and each one points to a distinctive form of corruption to which a constitution is subject. Most distinctively, Aristotle's understanding of corruption as a characteristic of a body politic rather than of individual acts pushes us to look beyond the moral foibles of our politicians to a consideration of the nature of our political life as a whole. It is often said that we get the politicians we deserve. Perhaps better stated, we get politicians whose characters reflect the state of our constitution (lower case) as a people and as a political association.
One of the features of a healthy polity according to Aristotle (and to the tradition he founded) rests on his view that citizens should share in the administration of justice. A citizen, according to Aristotle, is a person who rules and is ruled in turn. That means that citizens must be actively involved in deciding the affairs of their community. Aristotle, of course, recognizes the variety of political regimes in the world and refuses to take the Platonic route of describing a single ideal political society. (Plato's ideal is in fact, as Sheldon Wolin has shown, anti-political, designed to rid the world of the need for politics by establishing a timeless system ruled by impersonal and selfless reason). As a result, Aristotle does not specify who counts as a citizen, how much they share in administering justice, or what justice actually is -- for each of these varies with the nature of the regime and with the historical and geographical circumstances in which it is located. Nevertheless, Aristotle does insist that politics is a moral activity in which men realize what is distinctively human -- man is, as he says, a "political animal" (zoon politicon); thus, political activity is intrinsically valuable, not merely something one engages in instrumentally. A political regime is one in which men are enabled to live well (in both a moral and a material sense). As Hannah Arendt argued, it is right and proper for us to engage in the vita activa, the life taken up with the affairs of the political order in which we are citizens. The vita activa carries its own rewards, fulfilling who we are as humans; its purpose is written into its very nature rather than being directed to some external goal. Politics, in short, is intrinsically, not instrumentally, right.
But when a regime or its citizens fail to regard public life as a moral activity, political life changes from being what Euben calls a "partnership in virtue" to a mere modus vivendi that functions as a kind of truce between seekers of personal gain. Then the relations among citizens degenerates into mere alliance, commercial collaboration, or contractual agreement through which they pursue their narrow self-interest. At its extreme, political life takes on the features of a Hobbesian state of nature in which everyone seeks his own good, usually at the expense of the good of others and always at the expense of a collective good. When politics becomes a means to achieve selfish ends rather than a mutual collaboration to achieve shared ends consistent with our nature as humans, the regime has become corrupt. As Aristotle puts it, "so long as their association does not go beyond such things as commercial exchange and military alliance," their community is not a political society at all in the proper sense (Politics, 1280b). Such a community has degenerated into a barely contained war; such a community is suffering decay.
Right away, we should see a major difference between the Aristotelian-republican tradition and what has become the dominant liberal view in the United States (using liberal is the classic sense to mean a political theory that emphasizes individual liberty and rights). In the liberal tradition, beginning with Thomas Hobbes and continued by John Locke and his more recent followers, humans are best viewed as isolated individuals constantly seeking their own interests. Community, then, is artificial, created by a social contract conceived as an option chosen because it has the instrumental effect of creating an environment in which we can pursue our private interests with a minimum of interference from others. The public world -- the polity, the constitution, the state -- are designed to make the world safe for the pursuit of our private ends; it has no inherent value in itself. Aristotle's notion that the political has a moral purpose -- that political relations are deeply human in the best, most natural sense -- appears odd when seen through liberal lenses. Hobbes notoriously had no use for Aristotle, seeing the claim that politics is a moral enterprise as just a facade behind which stood someone's self-interests and, indeed, as a major cause of the English Civil War. For Hobbes, nothing is moral or immoral, right or wrong, except what the sovereign defines as such. And in the contemporary world where the "people" are sovereign, morality and right come to be shaped by sovereign consumers; morality is what the majority says it is. That means that corruption cannot be a matter of falling short of achieving the moral ends of political life, a failure to join together in a common pursuit of a good life together. In fact, corruption becomes a category with little critical purchase -- at best the description of those who cheat, who do not pursue their self-interest through the established processes but try to circumvent the agreed-upon system. The term cannot be used to describe the system as a whole, so long as the system is one that has been chosen or acquiesced in by the majority (explicit or tacit consent -- remember a liberal system is one rooted in the consent of the governed).
But the Aristotelian analysis, I believe, has a point. A constitutional democracy such as our own is more than a set of structures and rules designed to limit the scope of government, freeing up individuals to pursue their private interests. It is rather a framework for the pursuit of a common project, the project of building a good life together. Citizens are people who participate in the thinking, speaking, debating, deliberating, and deciding required to pursue this common enterprise. To the extent that politics -- the whole of the vita activa that springs from our thoughtful consideration of the issues we face as a people or community -- degenerates into verbal fisticuffs, political life has become corrupt. To the extent that it gets taken over by those who seek their own self-interests even if that comes at the expense of the common good, the constitution has degenerated. To the extent that citizens pay no attention to common affairs, or refuse to see others as fellow citizens engaged in a the common project, the public realm has been debased. When decisions are based solely on what is good for one's own wallet, when deliberation involves only the parroting of the extreme views of loudmouths (or entails the echoes of what Cass Sunstein calls "the daily me"), when debates are shouting matches and speaking is simply ranting totally immune to reason or facts -- then the body politic has been stricken with disease. Death cannot be far off.