How Corruption Coexists with Self Respect
Corruption is a terrible thing. It undercuts economies. It undercuts government services. It privileges the rich. It alternately benefits and screws over the poor. It is an extreme brake on getting useful things done. People have to spend lots of time and energy engaging in subterfuges and defenses – which keeps them from concentrating on what they originally intended to achieve.
That said, puritanical disapproval of corruption does little to actually solve the problem. Everyone in countries where corruption is widespread knows corruption is wrong. They all know the society would be better off without it. Giving pious lectures tells the locals nothing they don’t already know. Looking for villains is very challenging when everyone everywhere is participating in the system. Everyone everywhere is more or less “a villain”, even though these “villains” participate in the system because they have few realistic alternatives to doing so.
Here is a new and superlative introduction to the culture of cooperation by Monica Prasad, Mariana Borges Martins da Silva and Andre Nickow, “Approaches to Corruption: a Synthesis of the Scholarship” in the 2019 Studies in Comparative International Development. It is based on an exhaustive review of 260 articles and books on corruption. The bibliography is stupendous. The ideas that come out of that review are truly helpful.
The basic take of the article?
People may perceive corruption as being evil. However, they have sophisticated ways to justify their own participation in the system that make a great deal of moral sense. They may live in a corrupt world – but they are heroes in that corrupt world.
These are not empty rationalizations. Nor are they shabby paper-thin excuses. Corrupt acts are carried out by sophisticated adults in a complicated world. In this world, doing difficult things is a necessary precondition for producing a greater good. You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.
Corruption can fall remarkably close to gift giving. Corruption is wrong, but gift giving is a mark of basic decency. The trick is drawing the line between gift giving and corruption. Different cultures do this in different ways. One act can be clumsily staged and perceived as corruption, but with greater suaveness be perceived by all as generosity. In China, a gift has to have a clear demonstration of human sentiment and admiration. This is shown in the presentation. It is harder to pull off if the gift is cash rather than an object of value. In other places, the unwritten rules can be complicated and subtle.
In some countries there are bona fide ambiguities between public resources and private resources. In the United States, a school teacher might buy art supplies for her class out of her personal monies. In other countries, a public figure may have an official job but is also expected to provide forms of assistance because he is who he is as a famous individual. If public resources end up in his private hands – well, those distinctions were always blurred to begin with.
Loyalty can be a justification for “re-allocation” of public monies. In many societies, family ties matter. Someone who ignores family is not a fully moral person. The same may apply to ethnic solidarity. Sometimes the loyalty can be to “humanity in general”. Following the rules can be the sign of being a “cold fish” who lacks the basic decency to respond to the needs of the vulnerable and deserving.
Less admirable, but no less important, are moral justifications based on skill. Corruption is hard. It is not just a matter of walking up to some official and handing over a pile of bills. You have to know who to talk to. You have to know what you can ask for and what you can’t. You have to know how to make your offer in a way that will not insult or alienate the official. You have to be sure the person you are working with can be trusted to fulfill the bargain, and not just take your money and do nothing.
More so, bribery is often most required in very difficult circumstances where the desired outcome is very difficult to obtain - a last-ditch fix when everything else looked likely to fail. The individual giving the bribe is reinforced doubly. Firstly – the project is saved after all had seemed lost. Secondly, there is the satisfaction that comes from having done something that was not easy and required sophistication. There are few things in life more rewarding than a job well done.
The Bottom Line: Corruption persists in part because people feel they can morally justify their personal corrupt acts.
So how do you get rid of it?
The authors tell us “future research is clearly needed” … but they do offer some tantalizing hints. They talk about Big Bangs – where something changes so extremely fast that you can wash away all the old corrupt practices in the one huge reorganization of everything. Singapore and Sweden are good examples of same.
They don’t lean on this too strongly – and frankly, I would not lean on it too much either. There are a lot of bangs out there. Few produce anti-corruption reform. Britain eliminated corruption through the Trevelyan Civil Service Reform Act of 1870. Why was corruption cleaned up in 1870 and not say in 1832 after the giant social uprising of the First Reform Act, or in 1781 after a corruptly incompetent military led to the loss of the War for American Independence? Who can say?
But asking the authors for a complete explanation of the clean-up of corruption over all time and space might be a little demanding on the part of the reader. The authors show fairly authoritatively that corruption reproduces itself through strong and convincing systems of moral legitimation. That by itself is a nifty accomplishment.
For More Information
Check out some of the other corruption essays on this website. A few of them have useful references to further reading.
You could also look at the 260 references in Prasad, da Silva and Nickow.
Or you could check out a nifty companion piece done on the same project on what types of anti-corruption reform are more likely to succeed or fail. That essay is Gans-Morse, Jordan, Mariana Borges, Alexey Makarin, Theresa Mannah-Blankson, Andre Nickow and Dong Zhang. “Reducing Bureaucratic Corruption: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on What Works”. in World Development 2018.