What do you think when you hear the term ‘the Nordic countries’? Perhaps nature comes to mind or the welfare society. Or would the idea about a well-functioning, uncorrupt administration be most prominent?

At the end of January, Transparency International published the results of its international comparison of corruption. As for the least corrupted countries, Finland came in third, and the other Nordic countries were also ranked among the top countries, Denmark being number one. Indeed, Finns and Swedes in particular have a great trust that the state guarantees the safety, legal protection and welfare of its population.

What is the original basis for such trust?

“The written law,” Petri Karonen answers.

Written laws have existed in the area of Finland and Sweden since the Middle Ages, and people have also sought to abide by them. Moreover, the law was not merely dictated from above. Although the classes were basically unequal, the relationship between the rulers and the subjects was nevertheless interactional.

“The subjects – like us citizens later – had the right to lodge a complaint if they felt they had been mistreated. And I expressly emphasise here the word “right,” says Karonen. “A complaint always made the processing of the issue public and this transparency helped sustain public trust.”

Ineptness outweighs criminal motives in the records of courts of justice

Karonen and his research team are investigating the history of corruption in Swedish and Finnish governance. The research covers the early modern period, that is, from the beginning of the 16th century to the beginning of the 19th century.

What kinds of practices classifiable as corruption occurred in governance during that era? Karonen names three main types of corruption, which are still valid today: bribery, misuse of public funds, and overly generous gifts.

Bribery has virtually always been regarded as corruption. Misuse of public funds refers primarily to misappropriations and equivalent less severe actions that are clearly attributable to negligence and carelessness.

“Of course a civil servant could be honestly inept and make errors in counting, but that is incompetence and bad administration, not corruption,” Karonen explains. “Yet also in these cases the civil servant may face charges in court, because such actions are punishable as misconduct in office.”

Overly generous gifts may be used in order to speed up an administrative process or to have some issue dealt with in general. Karonen gives an example:

“There are recorded cases from Vyborg and Turku at the beginning of the 17th century, where the town leaders gave the members of the governing council of Sweden or the provincial governors one to two aamis of Spanish wine per person. It may not sound too bad, unless you happen to know that one aami (an obsolete Finnish unit of volume) equals 157 litres. Two aamis would mean almost a bottle a day for the whole year. It should be fairly easy to conclude whether this might have gone beyond reasonable limits.”

However, Finland and Sweden have been quite free of corruption. Karonen has gone through all records of the Svea Court of Appeal from 1614 to 1680. He found only about 30 cases of misconduct, and of these just a few had to do with corruption. A vast majority were misconduct in office, such as negligence of one’s duties.

“Although this material reveals only the cases that were brought to the Court’s attention and further studies are required on this matter, the finding is still astounding,” Karonen says. “Similarly, across the whole kingdom from the end of the 17th century to the end of the 18th century only about 250 cases of misconduct have been discovered.”

This indicates, above all, that monitoring has been effective.

Corruption in the 21st century

Finland and Sweden have maintained very strict monitoring of authorities ever since the beginning of the 17th century. This shows in decision-making, for instance. Even the highest administrators could not usually make decisions on their own but the decisions were collegial. This was a way to ensure that things would go as they should for the public benefit. In the present agencies decisions are made by the director.

“The failures in monitoring currently show up in certain health service companies, for example. In free and open societies all sorts of misconduct are quickly discovered, however, and it can serve as a deterrent as well,” Karonen points out. “Though it wouldn’t hurt to have tighter sanctions, either. In the early modern period, a civil servant would have lost his livelihood because of corruption.”

Nowadays, besides bribery, misuse of public funds and overly generous gifts, misuse of information and various systems of favouritism are considered corruption. Karonen quickly points out examples of both of these:

“Cronyist networks, whether male or female, are very clear systems of favouritism. Privileged information, then again, has been taken advantage of, for instance, in cases where politicians have switched over to the private sector into positions corresponding to their field of public administration. Even if public corruption is really rare in Finland, it lurks in the structures here as well.”

On a larger scale, more things are done well in Finland than they are badly. This shows, for example, in Finland’s high rankings year after year in the corruption reviews by Transparency International. Karonen reminds, however, of the wisdom from the early modern period:

“For the functioning of society it is important that citizens feel they can trust those in power and that they believe they can be heard and treated in a fair and just manner. All kinds of misconduct are detrimental to this trust.”

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