Raising the bar on what is corruption

My professor wrote a very interesting piece on corruption with a very catchy title, “The cost of being corrupt.”  The title may be a little wayward for those who like to read the book by its cover and draw some rather misguided inference on the content. But the paper is an academic masterpiece.

My professor wrote a very interesting piece on corruption with a very catchy title, “The cost of being corrupt.”  The title may be a little wayward for those who like to read the book by its cover and draw some rather misguided inference on the content. But the paper is an academic masterpiece.

There are many papers like this one in almost all economics journals or journals of political economy and they all seem to lump all the corruption variables together and hold some very critical ones constant.

There is nothing wrong with the methods used in analysis of cross country data on corruption; in fact, the issue is not in the methodology as much as it is in theoretical framework of corruption. One thing in common though, is that the majority of scholars whose work I have had the privilege of reading agree on one fundamental thing – corruption is bad for the economy.

In fact, countries all over the world seem to be concerned about petty corruption. They invest a lot in preventing this at the expense of corruption in high level places.

This has nothing to do with whether a country is averse to corruption or corruption-tolerant; neither is it an issue of nor laxity or policy inadequacy per se. It is rather an issue of narrow definition of corruption in terms of what corruption is and the definitive parameters that should inform both policy and legislative mechanisms to deal with corruption.

The narrow definition is neither accidental nor due to ignorance. In all cases the available evidence points more to convenience of the policy makers and more so to the political dispensation.

The Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary defines corruption as dishonest or illegal behaviour especially by people in authority. Its substantive definition is even more telling; it says corruption is an act or effect of making somebody change from moral to immoral standards of behavior. 

Although the dictionary does not expressly put forward the dichotomy between bribery and corruption, it seems to suggest that bribery is not the same as corruption but simply a property of corruption.

This is what scholars have always said about corruption, though not in so express terms or sometimes in incorrigible professional jargon understood by the privileged few.  In essence, what the Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary tells us is not new; it’s what we all know corruption to be, perhaps what we would not be inclined to accept depending on one’s position in society.

The definition of corruption is important if we are to have comprehensive and effective policies to fight corruption. However, the real issue lies with the deep determinants of corruption. Chief among these is the way we as a nation or people, choose to conduct affairs of the state, read politics.

Norms, values and ideals we ascribe to determines how well or otherwise we manage our affairs. This has so much to do with what is and is not acceptable in public life and how well we internalise and adhere to the dos and don’ts in our society.

Whether they apply to everyone equally or we tolerate exceptions; in which case the notion of values collapses.

So corruption is not limited to passing a few bucks to a policeman when you run a red light and put other road users in danger. It includes such things as misuse of public office such as taking decisions that undermine the rule of law, misusing the law or authority vested in an individual, using influence or one’s position to solicit favours even though they are non-monetary, and many other things.

However, the worst form of corruption we seem not to recognise is what in English is known as obsequiousness or sycophancy. This is the lowest or sleaziest form of influence peddling. According to available literature, sycophancy is practised mainly in the political sphere and the most susceptible individuals are those normally in positions of authority.

Sycophants are usually pathological liars; they usually have a thought-out plan based on the character of the person they want to corrupt, usually a person with authority over them. They craft themselves into extremely indispensable useful people, covering their inadequacies usually through a cabal of friends or other people beholden to them. They place the authority in a position of vulnerability, which allows them to do almost anything with impunity.

This form of corruption is perhaps the most rampant in the world, and occurs in high places in any country. It’s the most destructive form of corruption known to man, with far-reaching consequences on national economies.

While this is the most common and the most heinous form of corruption, it is one which the public seems to have accepted if not simply resigned to living with. We have become so used to it that we find it normal when public officers take decisions that violate the law.

Corruption is not therefore limited to pecuniary exchanges; it goes deeper and far beyond that. It encompasses situations of negligence, voluntary or involuntary. Included in corruption or perhaps even the most common is thoughtless decisions or indecisions that compromise national interest or the public good. What this means is that when a public officer takes arbitrary decisions, whether within or outside the boundaries of the law, then such a decision only has legal validity if it does not infringe on the rights of citizens to enjoy their liberty and guarantees of freedom that is the benchmark of society. In other words, such a decision is as good as corruption, because it infringes on the implicit contract between the governor and the governed.

Suffice to say, if the goal posts were to be moved now, a lot of people in public offices would find themselves in dire straights. For what is and isn’t corruption, depends on very much how we choose to define corruption.  It would be interesting to see how many of us in public places would end in court, if parameters of corruption were to be adjusted.    

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