The abuse of entrusted power for private gain: meaning, nature and theoretical evolution


Although the study of corruption has received increasing attention over the past decades, the theoretical progress of its earlier years has been increasingly relegated to a passive comment, resulting in an underdeveloped field as a whole. To address this issue, this paper explicitly adopts a prevalent definition of corruption—i.e. the abuse of entrusted power for private gain—and explores its meaning, nature, and theoretical evolution from the earliest human bands to the present era. The result is an examination of corruption’s constitutive elements and the way they open the door for a historical account based on the social evolution of political agency and the development of increasingly specialized ethical duties. The arguments presented here aim to provide a road map for future comparative historical research on the subject, and the potential identification of social patterns which sustain corruption tolerance today.

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  1. 1.

    It should be mentioned, however, that in recent years the study of institutional (contrary to ‘individual’) corruption has emerged as a distinct approach within the field, defined as taking place “when an institution or its agent receives a benefit that is directly useful to performing an institutional function, and systematically provides a service to the benefactor under conditions that tend to undermine legitimate procedures of the institution” ([88], 9); or as “a systemic and strategic influence which is legal... that undermines the institution’s effectiveness by diverting it from its purpose...” ([44], 553). At its core, this approach returns to the traditional conceptualization of corruption in terms of general decay—in this case, institutional or organizational—and emphasizes the need to discriminate between legitimate and illegitimate benefits in terms of the organization’s raison d’łtre [89]. While the arguments offered by institutional corruption theorists certainly offer useful perspectives on ethical challenges prevalent in the grey area of anti-corruption debates (such as the interpretation of private gains in cases of lobbying and campaign financing) the approach still struggles to empirically discriminate between individual and institutional corruption in a meaningful way; to distance itself from the broader discussion of ethics in government and formulate its objectives in line with global anti-corruption efforts; and to find applicability outside of democratic theory. For these reasons, it shall largely be considered (whenever applicable) complementary (rather than an alternative) to the arguments presented in this paper.

  2. 2.

    Pope’s ([62], 2) original definition was the slightly different “misuse of entrusted power for private benefit”.

  3. 3.

    Rose [70] raises the question of the minimum threshold amount using as example the use of work hours to indulge in leisure activities. In his opinion, a definition of corruption that includes such events would make it “massively too broad” and therefore “analytically unhelpful” ([70], 5). I disagree—there is value in analytically differentiating the decision-making structures of ethical infractions even at seemingly extreme ends of the scale. This is evident in the common distinction between petty and grand corruption, categories that separate a 2 USD bribe to a police officer in India and USD 800 million paid by Brazil’s Odebrecht in bribes across a dozen countries. Once we recognize the dangers of the ‘slippery slope’ [103] the threshold becomes a matter of policy design.

  4. 4.

    Ancient Athens is an early example. Taylor ([87], 27) proposes a direct link between their system of participatory democracy and its principle of equality among citizens, on the one hand, and the “large numbers of laws which deal with different aspects of corruption, and the quantity of allegations which appear in law court speeches,” on the other.


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Pozsgai-Alvarez, J. The abuse of entrusted power for private gain: meaning, nature and theoretical evolution. Crime Law Soc Change (2020).

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  • Corruption
  • Integrity
  • Human agency
  • Power
  • Compliance