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What corrupts independence and trust?

By ucyow3c, on 21 March 2014

pencil-iconWritten by Professor Richard Moorhead (UCL Laws)

Money’s influence on knowledge and politics was at the heart of the Centre for Ethics & Law’s annual lecture, March 14.  “The Place of ‘Institutions’ in the Idea of ‘Corruption’” was given by Laurence (“Larry”) Lessig, Professor of Law and Leadership and Faculty Director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, Harvard University.

US Capitol, an institution that needs public trust

US Capitol, meeting place for the US Congress.

His intellectual aim was to explore notions of corruption broader than the popular conception of backhanders, and to illuminate how institutions are subject to a more subtle but potentially insidious corruption through ‘dependence corruption’: the deviation from the purpose of an institution.

Such corruption can either directly weaken the effectiveness of the institution or it can weaken the public trust in the institution.

‘Independent’ institutions cannot and should not avoid dependence altogether. Indeed, institutions have ‘a proper dependence’ (democracies should depend on the views of the people; courts on the neutral interpretation of the law).

Independence is compromised when that dependence deviates from its proper root.  Just as when a magnet is placed next to the needle of a compass, an institution is corrupted when it is steered away from its intended aim. Professor Lessig’s second point was that trust is a function of independence.

When independence is compromised, public trust in an institution is liable to decrease. He discussed the findings of (contested) research into the harm caused by BPAs (a plastic widely used in baby dummies in the USA) and the use of mobile phones.

In both cases, industry-funded studies tended – very strongly, in his data – to show no harm, while independently funded studies tended to show harm.

Lessig’s point was not about which findings are true, but that “money seeming to be in the wrong place affects levels of trust”. Experimental work done with his colleagues supported the conclusion that “the mere suggestion of a financial incentive significantly influenced participant’s trust and confidence”.

His claim then was that industry-funded research weakened the trust it was designed to build in products and weakened trust in political discourse around such products. What he did not address is whether it weakened the sale of such products.

For Lessig, the most apt illustration of dependence corruption causing detriment is the deviation of the American Congress from its main purpose as a democratic institution because of its improper dependence on campaign money.

Politicians develop “a sixth sense” or “constant awareness about how what they do might affect their ability to raise money”. That money (and influence) derives from .05% of the American population.

These people do not buy elections outright, but they do buy influence on the choices (and candidates) electorates are offered. Whilst matters may not be as bad in the UK, the unhappy evolution of the recent legislation on lobbying and stalled talks on party funding are reminders against complacency.

Dependency corruption can be subtler than multi-million dollar PACs.

Aside from his main case study, Lessig suggested several other candidate areas for a dependence corruption analysis, including: the influence of pharmaceutical industry marketing money on the prescribing behaviours of doctors; industry money on academics advising policy makers; rating agencies deriving their income from the issuers of the financial instruments they rate; and the public ownership structure of most media organisations on journalism.

In each case, Lessig suggested that the inquiry rests on two main questions: does the dependence change the behaviour of the institution (doctors’ prescribing behaviours, academics advice to the policy makers, etc.), or does it modify the level of trust the public has in the institution (the reliability of ratings, the quality of fact finding or the objectivity of journalism, etc.)?

In conclusion, Lessig noted that institutions embed social meanings and that this meaning evolves over time. For him, questioning the baseline purpose of an institution ultimately amounts to asking “who are we?” and “who will we be?”

The answers to these questions will determine what kind of influence we will allow our institutions to accept. Furthermore, Lessig added that such an inquiry is not a specialised endeavour – it is the moral responsibility of anyone taking part in an institution, whether as citizen in a democracy or as an academic in a university, to “demand […] that those who live within [an] institution articulate the relationship between their work and the shared common understanding of the purpose of that institution, and to have the courage to embarrass yourself and the institution if indeed it doesn’t live up to those ideals”.

Watch the lecture below:

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