In my previous article on corruption, “Where Does Corruption Live?“, I had concluded that corruption lives in power. After reading my article, a friend came to a different conclusion: “The answer is simple. Corruption lies in greed.” This conclusion not only contradicted my position but also seemed quite reasonable. However, further thought led me to believe that power is, in fact, the right answer. Another friend asked whether in addition to power, other factors like behavior, value systems, and education also played a role in making a person corrupt. This article is written to advance this debate one step further.
I define corruption as human actions that stem from the lack of ethics and undermine human institutions and human relations. Corruption can take as many forms as there are types of human institutions and human relations. Acts such as bribery, fraud, extortion, falsehood, nepotism, deceit, vote rigging, calculated neglect, abuse, and cheating are some examples. These acts are used to extort unethical gain for some at the expense of others. In this process, power is abused or discharged inappropriately.
Greed as the source of corruption sounds right to the casual observer. However, all the experiences of my life lead me to think that corruption does not live in greed. I observe that people have an inherent greed for five things: food, material wealth, status, power, and pleasure. And they succumb to corruption primarily in the process of feeding their greed, which is like a constantly hungry barn animal. It is fed with the five types of feed. Remember that we cannot feed greed to somebody; it is inherently present in the person; but we can feed the person with food, money, status, power and pleasure. Therefore, when the animal looks sick, we are better off looking for the source of contamination in the feed than in the animal itself. Therefore, I would be inclined to say that corruption lives in money, status, power, or pleasure rather than in greed. I would say that greed only triggers or accelerates corruption instead of providing a shelter for it. Further, greed is not always terrible because it is also a motivator for people to be productive and innovative.
I remember an event that I witnessed as a little boy in a village in Baglung, Nepal. My villagers had slaughtered a goat that had to be distributed among a number of households. The meat had to be divided into equal portions by a competent man in the absence of a modern scale. While the man divided the meat, all others watched and analyzed intently. In the end, all the portions were lined up. Then they let the youngest person choose a portion, then the second youngest, and so on. Each person looked, lifted, and analyzed in a hope to acquire the most meat for himself. The man who divided the meat took the last portion. When I think back, I find this scene to be an exemplification of greed but not that of corruption. Everyone was driven by greed but the system was not corrupt. The system had checks and balances practiced long enough by the villagers for it to be established as a part of their culture and tradition. This led me to believe that greed alone cannot make a system corrupt.
Then I recall that some village bullies did not obey the collectively agreed-upon rules for watering the rice paddies from a shared canal. The bullies overtook someone’s turn entirely to avoid waiting for theirs. They were using their power to corrupt a social institution and were disintegrating human relations, although corruption in this case did not result in more wealth for the bullies. Their rice paddy did not, in fact, produce any more rice per hectare than the paddy of the little guy who was bullied. What the bullies got was “status” and pleasure out of the bullying. This case led me to think that power can corrupt a person whether privacy and anonymity are present or not.
These observations have led me to realize that greed is a catalyst for corruption but not the cause. I found that greed cannot produce corruption in the absence of power. But the power can produce corruption in the absence of greed. For example, suppose that a person devoid of greed was in charge of an organization that looked after young children. The person entrusted his competent staff to run the daily affairs. However, some of his staff turned out to be unethical and used their power and privilege to inflict emotional or sexual abuse on the children. This situation corrupted the institution and human relations without the person in charge having bad intentions. If the person provided proper supervision and intervention, the corruption may not have flourished in the organization. This shows that a desirable virtue like trust can also give rise to corruption in certain circumstances. Therefore, having a “clean mind” in the helm may not lead to a reduction in institutional corruption. A clean mind can, in fact, be a cause of corruption due to incompetence and irresponsibility as easily as a corrupt mind can. In the example of dividing meat, if the man taking charge was too incompetent in discharging his duties, it could have led to unfair distribution of meat, thereby corrupting the system. It teaches us that even an innocent action can indirectly cause severe corruption.
No one in my village locked their doors but I don’t recall many instances of stealing of clothes, cups, plates, water vases, and so on. However, I recall people stealing instant consumables like cucumbers, fruits, corn-cubs, and sugarcanes, or unrecognizable items like fodder, but all in small quantities, when owners were not around. Sometimes people attempted to take those items when small children were around but the intruders were not known to the children. Even then they ran if the children did not fall to their tricks or ever shouted. More fruits got stolen from small trees than from the large and hard-to-climb ones. When solicited, people often let us have as many fruits or vegetables as we wanted but not the non-food items. Further, stealing of fruits was not condemned but stealing a needle was considered a crime; they said “One that steals a needle can break a palace.”
The above examples give some more insight on corruption. One, greed for food leads to small-scale corruption. Two, although food is also a matter, it falls in a special category because it is possible to make a person completely satiated by food to a point that the person says enough. Three, cost to feed the people of a state can be finite but the cost to satisfy other needs of people can be infinite. Four, status often provides access to power and, therefore, corruption – as in adults stealing in presence of children, as in bullying, or as in abuse of students. Five, privacy, and anonymity amplify corruption as in stealing, and stealing when remaining unrecognizable. Six, privacy and anonymity alone cannot lead to corruption in the absence of power as in not being able to climb the large trees. Seven, power is a necessary ingredient and the most dominant force in the realm of corruption. Eight, corruptors of institutions are often the beneficiaries of the very institution they corrupt.
The factors that I believe are responsible for the survival-and-growth of corruption are depicted in the following Venn diagram. It shows that power is a common denominator among three sets of human and institutional qualities, which I refer to as Hunger, Intoxication, and Neutralizer sets. The hunger for food, material wealth, pleasure, status and power is what makes a person vulnerable to corruption. Therefore, these factors are placed in the hunger set. Once people acquire power and status they become intoxicated and become corrupt. And the intoxication is intensified by privacy and anonymity. Corruption also grows when neutralizing factors are not present in the system. My observations find four neutralizing features in human institutions: competing power (as in consumers being not deprived of choice), ethics, competence, and checks and balances (control). Among the neutralizing factors, competing power is a tricky one because it must be used as tool to eliminate monopoly in some cases, as a tool to optimize resource utilization in other cases, and as a tool for both in the rest. In the hunger set, greed is responsible for the growth in member elements. But because getting rid of greed is neither easy nor necessary, I cannot recommend that a state spend its resources to control the greed.
Contributing factors in the birth and growth of corruption
Therefore, all institutions must ensure that no one has absolute power, privacy, or anonymity when assuming a public role. This necessity implies that we put strong checks and balances in the institutions to save the institutions from corruption and subsequent degeneration. We should use feedback-control mechanisms to instrument continual checks and balances, develop competitive environment where better service is rewarded, assign responsibilities based on competence and not on connection, and promote individual and institutional ethics. The way conscious individuals respond to their mistakes and learn to avoid them in the future, systems should also instrument mechanisms for self-improvements. Further, the rules to govern the institutions should be refined continually to remain innovative and incorruptible.
To those friends that asked me to look at other factors that contribute towards developing incorruptible systems, I would like to add the following: We as a state and responsible citizens should look after basic needs of our people. We must instill ethics and constructive thinking in children who will, in turn, ensure continuity of the robust human institutions. We should reward individuals and institutions that can demonstrate self-improvements and incorruptibility. We should reward ideas and innovations, implementation strategies, and the actual implementations. Our goal should be to build a culture of innovation.