A study about corruption published in December puts forth an interesting, and troubling, conclusion: some countries in the European Union perceive themselves as less corrupt than they actually are.
The usual caveats apply: corruption is very difficult to measure, because by nature it is hidden, secretive. Plus, there is no set of values that can clearly separate corruption from non-corruption.
Corruption can take subtle forms — but ultimately, it is about betrayal of trust, about unethical, dishonest behaviour by people in a position of authority, whether in the state-owned sector or the private one.
The study, authored by Germana Corrado, Luisa Corrado, Giuseppe De Michele and Francesco Salustri, looked at subjective corruption – how corrupt people thought their country was – and objective corruption – how corrupt it actually was – by measuring perception versus empirical evidence of corruption.
Not surprisingly, by and large countries in Eastern Europe have higher indices of both subjective and objective corruption than countries in Western Europe.
This is because in Eastern Europe, 45 years of communism and dictatorships destroyed the social fabric and made people reliant on a system of “acquaintances and relations” to help them get by.
In some countries – most notably Romania, but also Bulgaria to some extent – deprivation was so high that the only way for people to ensure they had enough food was to enter an informal network of relations where barter and influence-peddling were the norm.
The study, called “Are Perceptions of Corruption Matching Reality? Theory and Evidence from Microdata”, shows Greece as the most corrupt country in the EU, both in terms of perceived corruption and objective corruption. It can be said that the Greeks see themselves as they are.
Romania, on the other hand, ranks as the second-most corrupt country in terms of objective corruption, but when it comes to subjective corruption, it ranks fourth. Romania, therefore, is more corrupt than its inhabitants believe.
The same can be said about Poland, which in objective corruption ranks third but in subjective corruption, seventh, and the UK, which ranks 11th in objective corruption and 15th in subjective corruption. On the other hand, for France, Italy and Portugal, perceived corruption is substantially higher.
It is perhaps better for people to view their country more corrupt than it actually is – it means they will be more vigilant and oppose corruption more vigorously.
By contrast, countries where people experience more corruption than they believe they would have a problem that is hard to solve, since people will not see the true size of the issue.