Volume 7, Issue 3, July 1997
Don’t Change the Subject
Interpreting Public Discourse Over Quid Pro Quo
A quid pro quo is an exchange of value between a citizen or group—often a businessperson or organization—and an official; what
the citizen or group offers can take either monetary or nonmonetary form and what the official supplies, in return, is some kind of public act. Despite the fact that instances of quid pro quo seem continually to compel public attention, very few rise to the level of bribery; i.e., the level in which they are resolved judicially. In part, quid pro quo eludes judicial forums for factual reasons: It is difficult to prove. And in part, the reasons are normative: The distinction between objectionable quid pro quo and acceptable democratic norms—on which citizens and groups ought to be able to support officials who are in turn responsive to them—is difficult to draw. Hence, a great gray area of quid pro quo finds itself resolved (or at least debated) in political forums. In what follows I examine central strands of American public discourse over the factual and normative issues of quid pro quo. My purpose is to articulate those principles which most parsimoniously account for its structure, and to explore what presuppositions various discourse-participants either explicitly or implicitly bring to bear in determining whether a situation constitutes a troubling quid pro quo.