Bribes: A banquet of carrion

Tuesday, 25 February 2020 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Corruption in government, where public officials use their offices for private gain, has a significant negative impact in countries all over the world. In fact, very few governance issues have more of a negative impact than corruption – Pic by Shehan Gunasekara


“It is said of Cato The Younger, a conservative Roman Senator in the period of the late republic, more than 2,000 years ago, had a famous 

distaste for the ubiquitous corruption of the period. He was the pursuit of restraint, of dignity, and most especially of severity. He did not contend with the wealthy in wealth, nor with the partisan in partisanship, but with the vigorous in virtue, with the restrained in decency, and with the upright in integrity. He preferred to be good rather than to seem good, and so the less he sought glory, the more it attended on him” – Synopsis paraphrased from the book ‘Rubicon’ by Tom Holland


Widespread corruption may have roots in culture and history, but it is, nevertheless, an economic and political problem. Corruption causes inefficiency and inequity. It is a symptom that the political system is operating with little concern for the broader public interest. 

For many years the issue of corruption has, to some extent, been downplayed by governments, international organisations, and policy experts. This is true because, first, corruption was considered a cultural and political issue; and second, because measuring corruption, much less getting rid of it, was perceived as nearly impossible. Thus, elimination of corruption was not usually an economic objective of development reforms. Instead, it was taken as part of the nature of a country, as exogenous perhaps as its geography. 

However, times have changed. Frustration with the lack of effectiveness of traditional approaches to development and the recognition that institutional development and good governance practices play a fundamental role in economic development have led to increased attention given to corruption. 

Bribery, nepotism, and influence peddling are informal institutions that frequently undermine formal institutions and are often pervasive and entrenched. A strong kleptocratic state may suffer financial haemorrhaging at the top, but very little day-to-day petty corruption. Where the state pretends to be strong by implementing numerous strict regulations, but the rule of law is weak, petty corruption will be rampant.

The most salient question is: “To what extent do public sector employees grant favours in exchange for bribes, kickbacks, or other material inducements, and how often do they steal, embezzle, or misappropriate public funds or other state resources for personal or family use?”

Corruption in government, where public officials use their offices for private gain, has a significant negative impact in countries all over the world. In fact, very few governance issues have more of a negative impact than does corruption.

Self-interest and the public interest frequently conflict. Corruption perverts underlying public goals. Corrupt public officials claim that bribes have not influenced their behaviour, but were merely gifts of appreciation.  Even those who pay to receive something they ought to obtain for free may believe that bribery is better than the alternative presented by the corrupt official, who will be biased against them if no money or favours have changed hands.

The public servant weighs the expected benefit of accepting a bribe against the expected cost. They deal with whoever is willing to pay.

The economic goals of growth, poverty alleviation, and efficient, fair markets are undermined by this despicable bribery and corruption. Corruption erodes political legitimacy and the protection of rights of the people of a country.

Corruption manifests itself in innumerable areas, in various and complex forms and interactions. Corruption has dominated in the fiscal arena. Although often unintentionally, fiscal policies sometimes facilitate corruption in the private and public sectors, as a result of the ways governments collect and spend resources. 

The relationships between corruption and fiscal policy can be simple and direct but also subtle and complex. In some cases, the public sector itself provides an incentive to its public servants, to be corrupt. For instance, poorly compensated public servants have powerful financial incentives to search for additional sources of income, including through bribes or extortion if necessary. 

Poorly designed expenditure programs and budget processes may also give individuals or firms opportunities or incentives to bribe public officials or to perpetrate other frauds. Other corrupt practices are internal to the public sector itself. Corruption can result from acts by politicians or senior policy makers; tax administration and customs officials; or those entrusted with contracting or delivering government services.

In summary, there are countless types of corruption and many distinctions can be made based on the dynamics of the act – unilateral and multiparty systems; the agents involved – usually, high-level officials, low-level officials and middle men who are private agents. The size and volume of the corrupt act also comes into play vis-à-vis - grand corruption or petty corruption which includes the budgetary functions – expenditures and revenues, and so on. 

One main conclusion of this analysis is that all types of corruption – including fiscal corruption – are detrimental, in different degrees, to the fundamental role of government to provide a stable economic framework, generate economic growth, and improve general welfare.

In contexts where corruption is pervasive and the implementation of policy is distorted by corrupt officials being highly educated and politically sophisticated will not translate into high institutional trust. Because combatting corruption is a means to an end – improving both economic conditions and political legitimacy. Anti-corruption reforms should be embedded in overall efforts to improve the delivery of public goods and services. 

Treating the symptom, but not the underlying problems, will not cure the malady. It is not enough to make a few high-profile arrests: true reform involves changing the way government interacts with society.

Finally, personal ethics play a role. Some people have such strong moral convictions that they will resist any corrupt proposal.  At the other extreme, some are so cynical that they have no scruples about using corruption to get things done. Most have a sense of morality, but one that can be overcome for the right price. 

Perceptions of corruption can help shape personal ethics: the more an individual perceives corruption to be the norm, the more that person is likely to engage in corruption. 

Blood money comes at the cost of your soul. Bribes and corruption are not just wrong; they’re dangerous. It’s corrosive. There are always strings attached, whether the money comes in the form of a salary or an envelope of cash slid under a table.

Concluding with an anecdote from the pages of history: 2,167 years ago in 147 BC, narrates the story of Titus Torquatus who was a famous politician, general and Consul of the Roman Republic.  Consider the severity with which he treated his son Manlius Imperiosus Torquatus. His son was accused by a deputation from Macedonia of having taken bribes while praetor in that province. Praetor was a title granted by the government of Ancient Rome to men acting in one of two official capacities: the commander of an army; or an elected “magistratus”, assigned various duties. 

Torquatus summoned him into his presence to answer the charge, and having heard both sides of the case, determined that his son had not held office in a manner worthy of his forebears, and banished him from his sight. The son thereupon committed suicide; his father refused to attend the funeral.

These are those who loved and served their country, heart and soul.

Let Torquatus be an example and let Cato The Younger be an inspiration.

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