Office, Misuse Of

Office, Misuse Of


Public office may be incompetently filled or its duties inefficiently performed. This indeed is often the case, but it is not the same as misuse of office. Misuse implies the doing of something improper;and the essence of the impropriety is the replacement of a public motive by a private one. When the satisfaction sought is material gain, the misuse is usually termed “corruption.” But private satisfaction may take various other forms, and the term “corruption” is sometimes used to include them as well. Further, the beneficiaries may extend beyond oneself to one’s family, one’s friends, one’s community. The holder of a public office is said to have misused his position when, in pursuit of private satisfaction as distinguished from the public interest, he has done something which he ought not to have done or refrained from doing something which he ought to have done.

In the narrower use of the word as a criminal offense on the part of a public servant, corruption needs to be more precisely defined. For such a definition we may turn to the Indian Penal Code(sec. 161). According to the code, a person is guilty of corruption who

being or expecting to be a public servant, accepts, or obtains, or agrees to accept, or attempts to obtain from any person, for himself or for any other person, any gratification whatever, other than legal remuneration, as a motive or reward for doing or forbearing to d any official act or for showing or forbearing to show, in the exercise of his official functions, favour or disfavour to any person or for rendering or attempting to render any service or disservice to any person, with the Central or any State Government or Parliament or the Legislature of any State or with any public servant as such. . . .

However, we are concerned with corruption and misuse of office in a somewhat wider context. For example, members of Parliament are not, strictly speaking, public servants; nevertheless they do hold public office and may misuse their office. Honorary magistrates are public servants even though, by definition, they get no remuneration for their work. Obviously, there is nothing to prevent an honorary magistrate from being as corrupt as a stipendiary magistrate. For instance, the story is told of a retired government officer who, on the grounds that he could not make both ends meet on his pension, prayed that he be given the op portunity of serving the state as an honorary magistrate! So long as obligations, duties, or functions of a public nature are attached to any position, salaried or honorary, big or small, the misuse of that position for private ends remains a possibility. Nor need corruption be confined to public office. In an extended sense, it may be said to be coextensive with all dishonest discharge of public obligations. Thus, an authorized dealer of rationed articles who sells at a price higher than the controlled price is guilty of corruption in the discharge of a delegated obligation. Indeed, in this larger sense, corruption has been described as “the acquisition, exercise and delegation of authority according to self interest rather than merit”(Wraith & Simpkins 1963, p. 56).

An illustration of corruption at the stage of acquisition or attempted acquisition of authority is to be found in what takes place before and during elections. The conduct of public office is tainted at the very source when those who seek to be members of legislatures, and perhaps ministers, obtain from the rich large donations for themselves or their parties and proceed to bribe the electors in order to gain votes. In commenting on standards of honesty in public administration in democratic countries, several writers point to the crucial importance of the norms set and observed during elections to legislative assemblies, senates, and parliaments (Gorwala 1953, p. 23 Bolles 1960, p. 183; Wraith & Simpkins 1963, chapter 2, part 2).

Historical background

Corruption is at least as old as the pyramids. Says Kipling in “A General Summary” of the history of corruption:

Who shall doubt “the secret hid

Under Cheops’ pyramid”

Was that the contractor did

Cheops out of several millions?

This perhaps will be dismissed as fanciful, but a concern with corruption is shown in the Egyptian Book of the Dead in the form of a supplication to Osiris: “I knew no wrong. I did no evil thing. . . .I did not diminish the grain measure. I did not diminish the span. I did not diminish the land measure. I did not load the weight of the balances. I did not deflect the index of the scales” (quoted in Goodman 1963, p. 81). This may be taken as indicative of what was in fact taking place fairly extensively in Egypt at that time.

Seldom has administration—and the civil service —been developed to so high a degree of sophistication as in ancient China. According to Confucius, “When a country is in chaos, it is shame to be rich and an official”; and it is on record that he thoroughly condemned Yang Ho, the powerful but corrupt official of Lu. Mencius, a follower of Confucius, said to King Hui of Liang, “If a king says ‘what will profit my kingdom?’ the high officials will say, ‘what will profit our families?’ and the lower officials and commoners will say ‘what will profit ourselves?’... Let your Majesty speak only of humanity and righteousness.”

In ancient India, Kautilya, writing on political science, administration, and economics, said in his Arthaśāstra

Just as it is impossible not to taste the honey or the poison that finds itself at the tip of the tongue, so it is impossible for a government servant not to eat up at least a bit of the king’s revenue. Just as fish moving under water cannot possibly be found out either as drinking or not drinking water, so government servants employed in the government work cannot be found out while taking money for themselves.

The city-states of Greece, which in some respects represent the highest levels attained by European civilization, had one feature in common with the most primitive tribal organizations: the smallness of the unit of government and the consequent direct contact between the ruler and the ruled. In these circumstances, there may have been occasional abuse of power through tyranny or open aggrandizement, but little or no misuse of it in the sense of corruption and the subterfuge that normally accompanies corruption. Nevertheless, by about the fifth century, corruption assumed fairly serious proportions in the Greece that had emerged from the older city-states.

Triumphs, pageantry, spoils, and wealth helped to introduce corruption on a large scale into Roman administration. The continual search for revenues by state and church, the weakness of the far-flung Holy Roman Empire, social and economic disparities which helped concentrate power, wealth, and status in the privileged few—all these provided the basis and the opportunity for extensive corruption in medieval Europe. The sale of judicial offices was restored in France in the fifteenth century. Writing at the turn of the sixteenth century, Bacon (in an essay on public office) listed corruption as one of the four vices of authority and exhorted those who held public office to “avoid not only the Fault but the Suspicion.” (Some years later he was condemned before the House of Lords for bribery and was deprived of office.) Philip Stubbes, the author of Anatomie of Abuses (1583), described how corruption had entered the very citadels of learning. One had to bribe one’s way into a college in Oxford. “Except one be able to give the Regent or Provost of a House a piece of money, ten pounds, twenty pounds, yea a hundred pounds, a yoke of fat oxen, a couple of fine geldings or the like, though he be never so toward a youth, nor have never so much need of maintenance, yet he come not there I warrant you.” Some eighty years later, Samuel Pepys was adjured by his patron, the earl of Sandwich, that “it was not the salary of any place that did make a man rich, but the opportunity of getting money while he is in the place.”

As Parliament grew in importance during the seventeenth century, bribery and corruption became an organized feature of British parliamentary elections. This continued right through the eighteenth century, so much so that Gibbon was moved to speak of corruption as “the most infallible symptom of constitutional liberty.” During the eighteenth century the evil had been accentuated by the competition for parliamentary seats between the old landed aristocracy and the new nabobs who came back with the spoils of colonial rule, mostly from India. “Many of the merchants who had gone out to India from Manchester found bribery to be just as useful in the Commons as in Calcutta, and sometimes they combined to purchase a borough” (Wraith & Simpkins 1963, p. 67).

There is little doubt that colonialism and imperial exploitation contributed to the further deterioration of standards of public conduct in Britain. The greatest of the empire builders had been among those who had “shaken the pagoda tree”most violently: Clive and Warren Hastings, for example, although Hastings was finally exonerated and Clive went on record as saying, “By God, Mr. Chairman, at this moment I stand astonished at my own moderation.” It is necessary to guard against the error of blaming these men for standards which were those of their age and environment. But in some instances they fell even below those standards, as Hastings did, for example, in the cases of Chait Singh of Benares and the begums of Oudh (Oxford History of India 1919).

What is remarkable, however, is that simultaneously with this devaluation of standards there were elements within Britain which would not allow the lower values to be taken for granted. Whatever their political motivations, it was these elements which ruthlessly insisted on charges being formulated, allegations being brought out into the open, and judgment passed by the highest tribunals of the day.

In the last analysis, it is only the conscience of a country, a live public conscience, that can uphold moral standards in the conduct of the business of the country—whether it be political, legislative, judicial, or executive. What has to be noted in this brief delineation of the historical background, especially of Britain, is that such a moral awareness can grow, even in periods of considerable corruption and malpractice, until a phase is reached when the public conscience appears able to operate effectively in the spheres of politics and administration. The remarkable fact about Britain is that there was—and perhaps there still is—such a phase which began before the middle of the nineteenth century. This fact is of special importance when we attempt to analyze a little more closely the circumstances in which corruption flourishes or dwindles in public life.

Significance of corruption

It is sometimes urged that it is not really possible to combat corruption; that since it will neither diminish nor disappear, it would be much better to learn to live with it. It is pointed out that even when high standards began to assert themselves in Britain, a special occurrence such as a war—with all the implications of government contracts for military supplies—was enough to upset the balance, as witness the Boer War scandals. Moreover, according to this point of view, corruption is ubiquitous. Japan, for example, had its naval scandals of 1914. In the United States the whole way of life that is congenial to private competition is also conducive to public corruption: the society is affluent, the values are acquisitive, and the operative social forces—in administration as in politics—are those which flow from aggressive and ostentatious private wealth. The United States has had some great men as presidents and many good men at all levels of government; but more typical of the society itself are those who figured in the whisky ring scandal during President Grant’s tenure, the Donald Dawson episode in President Truman’s time, and the Sherman Adams interlude during the regime of President Eisenhower. At the opposite pole, economically, are the developing countries: India, Pakistan, Indonesia, and Nigeria, for example. All the data available point to there being a large element of corruption in the administration of these countries. Is the combating of corruption, then, either practicable or worthwhile?

An answer may be attempted from two different angles: first, the standpoint of latter-day British experience, and, second, the significance of corruption for developing countries. There is little doubt that from about the middle of the nineteenth century, Britain managed to achieve, and on the whole to maintain, a level of integrity in public life, politics, and administration which has rarely been witnessed in the history of the world. Perhaps we can regard this period as commencing from the civil reforms of 1854, although substantial legislative reforms—of elections, for example—had started as early as the Reform Act of 1832. But if the British example proves anything, it is that statutes by themselves cannot purify public life;that, although legislative reform can support, it must in turn be supported by various other operative elements in the body politic; and that, while striving to reflect the highest in the public conscience, legislation cannot be much in advance of public conscience as a whole. The evolution of responsible political parties; the growth of communications; the spread of education; the emergence of an able and independent civil service to which recruitment was made entirely on merit(curiously, it was the Indian Civil Service that provided the model); national prosperity which, since it was based on competitive trade and industry, postulated a certain standard of national honesty; the development of professional integrity;the love of voluntary associations and the propagation through such associations of the standards of professional integrity—all contributed to Britain’s high degree of freedom from corruption.

Considering the history of Britain, the degree of her freedom from corruption is a hopeful and significant example for developing countries, especially those whose economic progress is politically based on a democratic polity. Developing countries literally cannot afford corruption. It would be selfdefeating for them to adopt the attitude that corruption is inevitable and that they must therefore learn politically, economically, and administratively to reconcile themselves to an existence which is interwoven with corruption. For corruption saps development and makes nonsense of planning. This is especially true of those plans which are intended for the benefit of the weak and underprivileged. Corruption weights the already overweighted scale in favor of the rich and the privileged. Perhaps most serious of all is the frustration, the loss of self respect, the insidious growth of cynicism it causes all around, particularly among young administrators—often the very ones responsible for development. It “vitiates policy, weakens administration and undermines public confidence” (Gorwala 1953, p. 14). Implementation is the essence of economic planning, and corruption has an almost fatal effect on the efficiency of execution. As an example, consider “speed money,” the system of giving bribes to expedite orders. According to the Indian Committee on the Prevention of Corruption (1964) speed money, in addition to being an objectionable practice, actually aggravated delays. The governments of the developing countries can no more afford to ignore corruption than to be apathetic to the poverty of their people.

The importance of environment

Corruption is not an isolated phenomenon. In the first place, it is fostered by certain kinds of social environments, including in that term a whole variety of political, social, economic, administrative, and ethical factors, such as the size, form, and functions of the state;the degree of power the state wields over the citizen and his daily life; the extent of social divisions and socioeconomic disparities; the level and spread of education; the prevalent values and loyalties; the efficiency of the administration; and the traditions of the civil service. Second, it is allied to a number of other forms of misuse of official power and tends to occur along with them.

In the same category as corruption are those forms of misuse of authority which result in some undue benefit to a favored individual (favoritism),relative (nepotism), coreligionist (sectarianism),member of the same clan or community (communalism), and so forth. Patronage and influence go hand in hand with corruption, and all three indicate a very poorly developed social conscience, for which personal profit and private loyalty take precedence over public duty. Quite often, the private loyalties (to clan or tribe, for example) must once have served a useful purpose—had “survival value”—in a different social context and under a different political organization. This is particularly so in developing countries. But these countries must realize that they cannot both cling to the narrower loyalties of a past age and at the same time make a success of democratic planning in a modern state. The experience of Britain shows that older loyalties can in fact give place to new social values: “Britain has had a hundred years to get accustomed to the idea that it is anti-social to advance the claims of relatives for public posts” (Wraith & Simpkins 1963, p. 33). Moral values help, but only if they are viable in terms of the society as a whole, i.e., if they are held widely, strongly, and persistently enough to have a significant influence on political and administrative action. Waves of moral enthusiasm sweep a country, sometimes in conjunction with a political revolution, but fail to have a permanent effect. Indeed, when the initial momentum is lost, more harm than good may well have resulted. An atmosphere in which high ideals are accorded only lip service is among the most congenial for the growth of corruption; it helps disseminate exactly those double standards which enable the bribetaker to maintain his self-respect while presenting one face to the world and another to his client. Again, an ideological revolution accompanied by violence may have a sudden and drastic effect on corruption. But, since even fear cannot last forever, it remains to be seen how long the results of such a reformation will persist in the societies concerned. In the last analysis, it is not the sanctions of the state, but the disciplined transformation of society to new ends and purposes, that can have a really lasting effect on corruption.

Among the best environments for corruption is a prosperous society which cherishes affluence as an end, competition as a means, and ostentation as a value. For those who are most powerful in such a society, the machinery of the state has significance only insofar as it can help to further their own aims, and there is a constant attempt to manipulate the machinery. The ethics of private business make persistent inroads on the ethics of government: gifts are given, entertainment offered, and contacts established. In such a society small business is at a disadvantage, because it has less access to the seats of power. In the developing countries this disadvantage is aggravated by the dependence of business on government for raw materials, credit, export licenses, etc. Since many countries launch on development for sheer survival, the state takes on powers which are inevitably large and dispenses resources which are inevitably scarce. That is how development (like war) tends to promote what, in terms of its successful prosecution, it can least afford: corruption.

Inhibiting corruption

Drawing from the experience of different countries, it is possible to make a list of those factors, and especially of those measures—legislative, administrative, and other—which may be regarded as corrective of corruption. They may be classified as general, preventive, and punitive.

The most potent general remedy for corruption is public opinion. Nothing can overcome corruption if the public is prepared to tolerate it. On the other hand, no government can afford to be complacent about corruption if the public is not prepared to tolerate it. In this, the press has a most important part to play, both as the vigilant guardian of the public interest and as the vigorous exponent of public views.

Elections can be a primary source of corruption. They cannot be fought without money, and if competition is uninhibited and expenditure unrestricted, the money required can be considerable. This money can come only from rich firms and prosperous individuals, who never pay without expectation of return. Hence the need to make elections cheap and the expenditure on them limited and accountable; also to restrict the amount of individual donations. If this is effectively enforced, corruption will have been controlled at one of its principal sources. Since, in actual practice, parties keep pace with individuals in observing double standards, election laws are in many countries more an adornment of the statute book than obligatory guidelines for the actual conduct of elections.

An independent judiciary is a great asset for a country struggling with corruption. Mention may also be made of the ombudsman, who is directly answerable to parliament as protector of the citizen against the harassment of officialdom; first instituted in the Scandinavian countries and later adopted elsewhere, as in New Zealand, this institution has only limited relevance to the fight against corruption in developing countries.

In considering the preventive aspect, one must deal with both ministers and civil servants—and, indeed, the whole machinery of government. In the long run, no civil service can rise above the level of its ministers. Some countries, such as India, have drawn up codes of conduct for ministers. Among other obligations, a minister must from time to time declare his assets and liabilities to the prime minister. He also must sever connection with any business he was employed in before becoming minister; undertake not to raise funds except through recognized trusts; and agree not to accept valuable gifts except from close relatives. A similar code applies to civil servants. One has, however, to draw a sharp distinction between the formulation of such codes and their strict observance in actual practice.

In regard to the civil service, two or three other points need emphasis. Clearly, the proper recruitment and training of civil servants is of great importance, as is the upholding of standards and traditions. No less essential is the proper allocation of authority. Delegation should not be unnecessarily withheld, just as it should not be unwisely extended. Above all, it should be unambiguous. Nothing encourages corruption so much as the diffusion and blurring of responsibility. Finally, it is necessary that government servants should be properly housed and adequately paid. These elementary requirements are often so neglected as positively to encourage corruption.

All punitive procedures—investigation, inquiry, and judgment—should be speedy, effective, independent, and impartial. On the one hand, it is essential that the public should not have scope for the suspicion that the government is anxious to shield a minister or an official. On the other hand, it is equally necessary that the functionary concerned should have no room for apprehension that justice will not be done to him. For detection and general surveillance, vigilance commissions have been established in some countries. While not wholly independent of the executive, they have a right to report to the legislature. High-placed judicial tribunals and high-powered national panels are among the institutions established or proposed for dealing with ministerial misconduct.

There is no lack, then, of administrative ingenuity in devising measures to counter corruption. Also necessary, but not so readily forthcoming, are the social will and the political willingness to eradicate the evil.

B. Venkatappiah

[See alsoBureaucracy; Civil Service; CONFLICT OF Interest; Economic Growth, article OUnoneconomic Aspects; Police; PoliticalMachines; and the biography ofKauttlya.]


Bolles, Blair 1960 Corruption in Washington: Or, Men of Good Intentions. London: Gollancz.

Goodman, Walter 1963 All Honorable Men: Corruption and Compromise in American Life. Boston: Little.

Gorwala, A. D. 1953 Report on Public Administration. New Delhi: Government of India, Planning Commission.

India, Committee ON Prevention OF Corruption 1964 Report. New Delhi: Ministry of Home Affairs. → The chairman of the committee was K. Santhanam.

The Oxford History of India. 3d ed. (1919) 1961 Oxford: Clarendon.

Stubbes, Philip (1583) 1877-1882 Philip Stubbes’s Anatomy of the Abuses in England in Shakespere’s Youth, A.D. 1583. Edited by F. J. Furnivall. 2 vols. Published for the New Shakespere Society. London: Trübner.

Wraith, Ronald; and Simpkins, Edgar (1963) 1964 Corruption in Developing Countries. New York: Norton.

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