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How to Corrupt an Idealistic Public Servant







Corruption is the greatest obstacle to government effectiveness today.


Americans like to whine about corruption – but they have one of the cleaner governments in the world. In America, you can not pay a traffic cop to get out of your speeding ticket. In America, women do not have to have sex with customs officials in order to get their property across the border. In America, you can’t pay your professor for “private tutoring” and get the answers to the final exam. Paying cops, customs inspectors, professors, judges, tax collectors, driver’s license clerks, game wardens, jailers, and nurses in public hospitals is a fact of life in much of the rest of the world.















According to Transparency International, in 2017, the United States was the 21st cleanest country out of the 179 nations for which there is data. We are slightly dirtier than most European nations, but cleaner than France and Japan.

The corrupt countries, not surprisingly, are the poorer ones. The lower the GDP, the higher the level of corruption.


Why are government officials in poor nations corrupt while those in rich nations are honest?


Americans like to pretend that we are of higher moral character than in the rest of the world. Don’t believe that for a minute.      


There is no better way for an American to lose friends and alienate people than to give people from poorer nations lectures on why they should not be so corrupt. The locals are quite aware that some American companies working overseas offer bribes. Some American bribe payers do so quite happily. They also know of other scams that American companies use to avoid obeying the law. This can notably be the case when the law involves land acquisition or ecological standards.


Locals who live with bribery every day are also aware that bribery and moral depravity are not the same thing. Many countries have rituals that allow for taking bribes while staying virtuous. These rituals are nuanced and sophisticated. They are similar to the rituals we have about making sexual overtures. Do it the right way and the object of your attention feels flattered and honored. Do it the wrong way and the object of your attention feels like you are treating them like trash.


Bribes are often repositioned as “gifts to friends”. This is particularly the case when the person you are paying is someone you interact with regularly. Regular interaction means there really is the basis of a bona fide relationship. You offer a gift because you genuinely want to help someone who means a lot to you. They intervene on your behalf because they want to help someone who means a lot to them. Everyone is being good and noble – never mind the fact that cash is changing hands.


Bribes can often be recast as the strong helping the weak. You go to the official with a terrible, terrible problem you have. The gift is a sign of the awful fix you are in and how much it would mean to you if it were to be resolved. Seeing that you are a vulnerable person in distress who is highly motivated, the official kindly steps in and sees that you are protected from harm. What could be more admirable than that?


The reason that officials in poor countries are more corrupt than officials in rich countries is that even if they played things straight, they simply lack the resources to do their job. The condition of being unable to do your job through no fault of your own can be called technical demoralization. In rich countries, such as Denmark, social problems are relatively modest. Much of the population has enough money to solve its own problems themselves. Crime rates are low. People are generally healthy. The size of the poverty population is small. The size of government budgets is large. So government officials have small relatively tractable social issues they are expected to deal with. They have substantial amounts of money and personnel in their departments with which to confront those social issues.


In a poor country such as Cambodia, the population with needs is massive. Individuals do not have enough money to solve their problems themselves. Crime rates are high. Disease and sickness are widespread. The size of the poverty population is massive. Likewise, since the country is poor, the government is poor. So government budgets are relatively small. In an underdeveloped nation, government officials have massive intractable social issues they are expected to deal with and almost no money to apply to the task. Technical demoralization is widespread.


When trying to do your job is a joke, there is very little reason not to make some money on the side. Think about the work of a policeman in a country with a lot of drug traffic such as Colombia or Mexico. The salaries of policemen in Latin America are very modest. They often have to live in the same working class neighborhoods that are effectively under the control of the drug lords. One policeman is not going to be able to take out a cartel. Okay, in Hollywood movies, one policeman can take out a cartel. He can also make the drug lord’s girlfriend fall in love with him, and make all the bad guys’ bullets miss.  But that is Hollywood, not real life. In real life, the cop is facing massive odds. The drug lord knows where the cop lives. He knows where the cops’ parents live and where to find the children of the cop’s brothers and sisters. Even if the cop is macho man and could survive a direct attack upon himself, he can not protect everyone in his family. So when the drug lord’s men come over, being nice and friendly, and offer to help the cop out financially, he would be hard pressed to give no for an answer.


Of course, not every corrupt cop is a sweet little angel. Once police have given up on the mission of actually enforcing the law, there are all sorts of ugly opportunities to engage in dirty business. There are gangs of cops who organize their own kidnapping rings. There are gangs of cops who prey on relatively weak gangsters – with the intention of receiving money to let their arrests go free. There are gangs of cops who shake down the local population out of general mean spiritedness and the hope of extorting side payments.


This leads to a sickening feedback cycle.


Inability to reduce crime causes police corruption.


Police corruption makes it even harder to reduce crime.

The two processes reinforce each other.



The same thing can occur in any other branch of government. Public health officials who will never be able to lower disease in their district sign off on big white elephant hospital projects where they can get generous side fees for “consulting”. Engineers who will never be able to build enough roads to accommodate the traffic needs of overpopulated cities throw their projects to shabby politically connected contractors who stint on materials. Game wardens who are expected to patrol hundreds of square miles against bands of armed men looking for ivory or rare animals will be just as happy to take $75 to conveniently disappear. Out in the jungle, it could be a very long time before anyone finds the game warden’s body.

*  *  *


Ironically, the most intuitively appealing solution to this problem makes things worse rather than better. When government officials are corrupt, the natural instinctual response is to cut off funding for that government. Why pay taxes to a bunch of thieves who will put your tax money into their pocket?


Cutting the budgets of underperforming agencies increases technical demoralization and thus increases corruption. The harder you make it for honest government officials to do their job, the easier it becomes for them to go corrupt.


Like it or not, the general solution to corruption often involves increasing government funding rather than decreasing it.


Of course, you don’t just take public money and pour it down a rathole.


Once public officials become demoralized and corrupt, they are very unlikely to become uncorrupt. Getting their offices to work often means firing old jobholders and putting in new ones.


If one does not want the political blowback from mass firings, a more suave alternative is to create a new office with all of the functions of the old office. Hire bright young idealistic technocrats for the new office. Fund the new technocrats generously. Let the old office die of attrition while the new office does the real work that needs to get done.


Frankly, though, once corruption has set in, it is very hard to remove. Most countries with corruption have endless series of politicians promising to clean up the corruption, and endless reforms designed to create a new start. Yet at the end of the day, the new system is just as corrupt as the old one was.


It is a lot easier to take a system that is clean and keep it clean by making sure the government is adequately funded, than it is to take a dirty system and try to remove all of the rats and all of the scams. Prevention is much easier than cure.


I am aware of only two successful clean-ups of otherwise corrupt public services. The first happened in Victorian England in 1870, under the rubric of the Trevelyan Reforms. Britain in the 1700’s and early 1800’s was a patronage-ridden place. Government jobs were obtained by personal connections. Sinecures and do-nothing positions were common. Government contracts and benefits were handled by clientelism rather than any rule of law, with benefits accruing to those willing to pay the most.


This came to an abrupt end in 1870 with the imposition of Civil Service Reform. Civil Service jobs could now only be obtained by obtaining top scores on Civil Service Exams. Jobs were handed out on objective criteria. Salaries and raises became equally regulated. There was a complete crackdown on all forms of venality.


The other major clean-up occurred in Singapore. Singapore in the nineteenth century was a crime-ridden place. It was a Wild West City that serviced the needs of the rubber workers in the nearby plantations. The British ran the higher affairs of the colony, but organized gangs controlled much of the daily life of the city. Singapore today is a model of clean, technocratic, meritocratic public governance. According to Transparency International, Singapore has less corruption than Canada, Germany or the Netherlands. This is remarkable for a country in the Global South.


What did Britain and Singapore have in common that set them apart from the rest of the corrupt world today?

Dramatic levels of economic growth.


Britain was the richest nation in the world for much of the nineteenth century and was Europe’s leading manufacturing power. Poverty levels were steadily decreasing. The resources available to the British government were enough to make them the dominant naval power of the world, and still allow for plenty of money for domestic administration. Public administrators in Britain were wealthy and empowered.


Singapore is one of the great economic growth stories of Asia. Its transition from a plantation economy to a shipping economy based on commerce to a light manufacturing economy to a financial center providing banking to many of the other nations in Asia has been extremely rapid and extremely successful. Rapid economic growth has eliminated much of Singaporean poverty. A well funded government has been able to build vast amounts of public housing, provide decent levels of medical care and provide high levels of education. So Singapore is far easier to govern than would be Afghanistan or South Sudan.


In the absence of dramatic economic growth, corruption is very hard to clean up. Reorganizing government offices produces changes that are short term and cosmetic. Cutting funds to the government makes things worse.


So what is the simplest way to corrupt idealistic public servants?

Make it impossible for them to do their job.


There are lots of ways to make it impossible for public servants to be effective. Gutting government revenues will easily do the trick.


For More Information

There is a vast amount of literature on corruption. Much of it involves moaning and hand wringing rather than analysis.

The best book ever written about corruption is Robin Theobald’s Corruption, Development and Underdevelopment. I agree with his analysis wholeheartedly.

For a collection of readings that puts a ton of the literature in your hand for one-stop shopping, try Arnold Heidenheimer and Michael Johnston’s Political Corruption: Concepts and Contexts. The selections lose little from being edited down.

For one treatment of relationships between police and drug gangs that is harder on the police than I am, see Desmond Arias’ very convincing Drugs and Democracy in Rio de Janeiro: Trafficking, Social Networks and Public Security.

For a history of English Civil Service Reform, try Edgar Gladden’s Civil Services of the United Kingdom 1850-1970. You will need coffee to keep you awake.

There are many fine histories of Singapore. C. M. Turnbull’s History of Singapore 1819-2005 is perfectly reasonable.

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