Public life in our country has been gravely affected by what is perceived to be generalized corruption. But if we look at the ranking of global corruption published yearly by Transparency International, we see that our relative position is not as bad as it might seem. It seems likely that our score will fall by a few points when the data for 2013 come in, but according to the Index of Perception of Corruption for 2012, Spain (65 points) ranks 30th, much closer to France (22nd on 71 points) than to Italy (72nd on 42 points), though still far from the northern European states that lead the list, headed by Denmark and Finland on 90 points.
Why this benevolent image of our country, when stories of corruption are in the press every day? The explanation is very simple. The methodology used by Transparency International is built around surveys on the practice of taking bribes, at the lower official levels, which is relatively frequent in emerging nations and failed states, but very rare in Spain.
We must distinguish between different classes of corruption. On the one hand is the microcorruption of bribes paid to public employees, which in our country is seldom seen. One exception was the "Guateque case," a racket involving the sale of licenses to small businesses in Madrid City Hall, with more than 100 accused and 28 brought to trial. But only six of these were civil servants or municipal technicians.
And then there is macrocorruption, the networks of bribery affecting top public authorities for the granting of major public works and services contracts. This is the case of the clientèle networks such as Gürtel, or the systematic bribery revealed by the confession of ex-PP treasurer Bárcenas. This does not affect civil servants, but politicians with decision-making capacity (municipal councillors, mayor and ministers) and lower officials personally appointed by the above and belonging to their networks of confidence. These people, though they occupy elective public posts, act exclusively in function of the interests of private persons or of their political grouping.
We must steer a course twixt Anglo-Saxon neoliberalism (Scylla) and German ordoliberalism (Charybdis)
However widespread it may be, this macrocorruption is mainly limited to the higher spheres of corporate and political power, and does not affect the ordinary public employee. Far from the PIGS stereotype applied to us by the Nordics, it might be argued that Spain is a model of public integrity, given that corruption contaminates only the party leaderships and the upper echelons of business elites, being a private preserve for the ruling caste, and for what have been christened the extractive elites.
Transparency International's new Global Barometer of Corruption corroborates this view, when it estimates the impact of corruption on different institutional sectors. Here we see that corruption in Spain, in comparison with neighboring countries, affects mainly the three branches of the state (Executive, Legislative and Judiciary) but has zero impact on public services (education and health) and on the various corps of public functionaries, whose integrity in Spain is comparable to that which is prevalent in the Nordic countries, and has an appreciable advantage over Italy and even France.
In short, what characterizes public employees in Spain is not corruption, but the priority they accord to the defense of the public interest. They do not sell their services to the highest bidder, or accept bribes. On the contrary, financial executives and politicians who belong to a party (or a union) are most decidedly for sale.
Meanwhile, our country has to steer a course between the neoliberalism of the Anglos-Saxons (Scylla) and the ordoliberalism of the Germans (Charybdis) which have in common the categorical imperative of competition. The neoliberals drive us to privatize public things to gain economic profitability, while the ordoliberals demand adjustment of public deficit, to gain administrative rationality. Corruption often gives you an edge in competition. This is the dilemma of our time: venal competition, or professional integrity. The bets are on.