Global Agenda: Corruption constraints

Many aspects of 21st century life are taken for granted by younger people, while older ones endeavor - usually in vain - to explain that "until recently", or "when I was your age", these things didn't exist and yet "we managed very well without them".

October 17, 2005 06:57
4 minute read.

Many aspects of 21st century life are taken for granted by younger people, while older ones endeavor - usually in vain - to explain that "until recently", or "when I was your age", these things didn't exist and yet "we managed very well without them". Obvious examples are the Internet and cellphones but, while the list is by no means limited to telecommunications and computers, the implication is always that there has been progress. True, we did not used to have this or that item or capability, but even so, humanity did not, in the 1980's, 70's or 60's, dwell in dank caves. The Flintstones was a comedy show back then, not a reality program. However, "the way we live now" is a concept that stretches far beyond technology, let alone mere gadgets. A near-universal feature of 21st century society is the existence and prevalence of corruption in almost all areas of public life. Some countries and regions have this disease worse than others, but nowhere is free of the blight. It is therefore almost impossible to persuade people below the age of thirty that, before they were born, this was not the case. Corruption was not universal, it was not endemic and it certainly wasn't taken for granted. In many Western countries, people were genuinely shocked when a judge, police officer, or senior civil servant, was found to have taken bribes, let alone to have been involved in a criminal conspiracy. Of course, such things occurred. In some countries, they occurred quite frequently. But the underlying presumption was that they ought not to occur and so, if they did, the perpetrators could expect to be punished. The basic idea, that some kinds of behavior or actions were unacceptable, meant that there were standards that people in general, and certainly public officials, were held to. An outstanding example is that of the disintegration and ultimate demise of the Nixon Administration, which stemmed technically from the "third-rate burglary" at the Watergate, but was propelled by the discovery that the president was a foul-mouthed, racist liar. Today, the underlying presumption is that all politicians are corrupt, as are most other public officials, and the burden of proof is on them to convince people to the contrary. In the best case, meaning in countries where the rule of law is in force, these corrupt people are somewhat constrained by systems of checks and balances, which boil down to possibility of their peccadilloes being discovered and exposed. In dictatorships, oligarchies etc., these constraints are absent so that corruption can develop unchecked, and often does. Having no first-hand experience of a system, country and world where these damning negative assumptions are not valid, young people have no basis to believe that things could ever be different. Maybe they were once, although that's probably a myth, in their view; but even if they were, that former state is as unattainable and hence irrelevant as a world of telegrams and operator-assisted trunk calls. Older people, who know that there was a time when corruption was not the norm, are also persuaded that that state of affairs is gone forever. Such cynical negativism is perhaps understandable, but it is nonetheless mistaken. The dynamics of corruption are such that society - any society - ultimately must reimpose behavioral constraints, or else it will collapse. Some societies and countries are too far down the road to ruin to manage this, but others will succeed in pulling themselves together before it is too late. There is nothing particularly idealistic about this conclusion. On the contrary, it is rather utilitarian as can be seen from a simple but telling example. Along with most other judges, football referees are increasingly corrupt. Recent scandals involving rings of rotten referees working with gambling syndicates to fix games, have been exposed in Germany and Brazil, to name just two football super-powers. The mechanics were quite straightforward: referees were given money, or supplied with call-girl services, and then made decisions regarding penalties, goals, yellow and red cards, etc., to tip the game in the required direction. The problem with this is that once football fans realize that games may well be systematically tampered with, they lose confidence and hence interest in the whole system, however fanatic their support may be for their team. For someone who takes the game seriously, a rigged result is worse than losing because it renders the entire event meaningless. The financial parallel is debasing the currency or manipulating share prices. These can only be effective if they are marginal activities, because once they become the norm, confidence collapses and the scam ceases to be effective. The same basic logic is valid in every sphere, including government. Corruption carries the seeds of its own destruction - the question is how much damage it does before it self-destructs.

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