(photo credit: Courtesy)
A recent topic of discussion in the blogosphere is “good corruption.” No one
denies that well-functioning democracies serves their citizens best when public
servants do their jobs impartially. But in an imperfect world where various
degrees of corruption are already present, is it ever ethical and proper to pay
bribes? Can a system motivated by bribes ever work better than one run
impartially? The most ambitious, or perhaps audacious, claim is that in an
effective autocracy, bribes can give the rulers good incentives for economic
growth. For example, while most kleptocracies descend into anarchy, Indonesia
under Suharto actually had robust growth.
One hypothesis is that since
the value of bribes to the briber will be greater when there is more economic
value to distribute in corrupt fashion, then the revenue from bribes will be
greater. If a ruler automatically gets a certain percentage of all contracts, he
has an incentive to develop a large and rich country that will have a lot of
contracts to grant.
This argument is quite weak. Incentives are valuable
when we want someone to do something difficult or unpleasant. While the high
salaries of CEOs may be offensive, nevertheless, it’s not easy to attract
talented people to a high-stress 24/7 job. But getting a country to grow doesn’t
require incentives; it just needs the right conditions, including an impartial
bureaucracy that doesn’t take bribes.
We don’t want or need a Suharto
dreaming up ways to build the Indonesian economy.
We just need him to
administer the economy in a fair way so that entrepreneurs can do the job
themselves. Giving a ruler a fraction of all government contracts doesn’t
provide an incentive to build the economy in a balanced way.
popular argument is that a little bribery is sometimes necessary and justified
to “grease the wheels of commerce,” especially in countries where bureaucrats
have too much power to interfere. This viewpoint has some merit and is even
reflected in legislation such as the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which
allows “grease payments.”
A grease payment involves paying a bureaucrat
for a standard service that doesn’t involve judgment. You are paying him off to
do what he is supposed to be doing, instead of paying him off to do what he is
not supposed to be doing; for example, showing favoritism.
On the one
hand there is much logic to this position, and it could be extended to practices
that involve some judgment – as long as the briber is convinced that it is truly
in the public interest for the public servant to act as the briber requests. But
there are two obvious problems with this argument.
One problem is
Reconciling ourselves too easily to the reality
of grease payments virtually guarantees that this reality will persist: The
briber is convinced that he is doing nothing wrong; the public servant is
convinced that he also is doing nothing wrong; and we are basically putting them
up to demanding bribes.
The second problem is the slippery
Self-interest easily convinces us that favoring our own firm is
truly in the public interest, and ultimately adopting this “standard” could turn
into having no standards at all.
Economics blogger Tyler Cowen suggested
a few months ago that the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act should be modified to
exclude Haiti. The reason is that Haiti is a very corrupt country, and it is
impossible to improve the lot of its residents through commerce if no bribes can
This is a piecemeal approach that doesn’t leave the judgment to
the briber but rather to government policy. It could be partially immune to the
Regarding self-fulfilling prophecy, it is a bit
far-fetched to think that an entire country would resort to extortion based on
the hope that legislators in some other country will conclude that the situation
is incorrigible and give the country an exemption from anti-bribery
Regarding the slippery slope, there should be an improvement
because the decision is being made by a body, the legislature, which doesn’t
have a direct interest in the matter and is subject to public
It is no doubt true that widespread antibribery legislation
and international treaties have victims as well as beneficiaries.
benefits to the war against corruption are so great, and the costs so
speculative, that it would be a mistake to give up the battle. It even
appropriate to allow some short-term and special-purpose exceptions to
for extreme cases such as Haiti.
Asher Meir is
research director at the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem, an
institute in the Jerusalem College of Technology (Machon Lev).