Ethics @ Work: Can bribery ever be justified?

A recent topic of discussion in the blogosphere is “good corruption.”

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.
A more 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 self-fulfilling prophecy.
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 slope.
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 be paid.
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 above objections.
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 legislation.
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 oversight.
It is no doubt true that widespread antibribery legislation and international treaties have victims as well as beneficiaries.
But the 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 might be appropriate to allow some short-term and special-purpose exceptions to account for extreme cases such as Haiti.
Asher Meir is research director at the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem, an independent institute in the Jerusalem College of Technology (Machon Lev).