In Search of Wisdom: Where does Corruption Live?

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There was a popular book of jokes in Nepal called “Akbar Birbal Bilas”, which contained apparent conversations of wit and wisdom between Mughal emperor Akbar and his minister Birbal in the 16th century. This book had so much food for thought that I finished reading it quickly and remembered most of it for years. Although the accounts were likely fabricated, they discharge wisdom in an entertaining way, and one of those jokes titled “Where does Lust live?” inspired the writing of this article.

The meaning carried in that joke gives some profound idea to a thinking person in determining whether the national policies and laws meant to control crimes, and failings, brought by lust and sex are mere rhetoric or products of wisdom. Yet, the essence of the story is simple in that it succinctly “proves” that the lust lives in privacy. But to know this simple fact is profoundly beneficial for a parent, teacher, politician, and every concerned individual in the society.

As I am writing this article, my local member of parliament and his party are busy introducing a law in Canada to raise the age of sexual consent, ostensibly to bring down the rate of sexual crime. When the statement came in a pamphlet a few weeks ago, I instantly knew that it is a policy developed with a shallow understanding of the issue, thanks to the joke that I had read when I was in Grade 8. I knew that these individuals with great bravado could not understand this simple truth known to people for centuries. If they knew, what would be the logical way of reducing teen sexual activity? Reduce the amount of privacy! How? Simply increase the amount of time spent on mind-engaging and recreational activities in public setting. But such an endeavor is more difficult compared to writing an extra line in the already long book of law. Such a law is potent enough to fool many parents that get carried away by the slogans. However, for those who bother to analyze the essence buried underneath the surface of the message, this law can be nothing more than a feel-good legislation. The people who eliminated after-school sports, arts, music, and other intellect-building programs from public schools on the name of giving us tax-cuts are hoping to reverse the negative effects of those blunders through passage of a simplistic law.

The way critical analysis of abovementioned policies was made possible by knowing where lust lives, I have come to believe that such understanding would be useful in diagnosing corruption as well. Therefore, while much energy gets exerted in venting complaints about endemic and growing corruption, I wonder, “Where does Crruption live?” And, I feel that the problem of corruption in Nepal, or any other country in the world, would be solved only when we could first identify the residence of corruption and systematically dismantle that residence.

From all my ponderings, I have come to realize that “Corruption lives in power.” And, we don’t need to go far to see that power can corrupt anyone, not just the predisposed ones. Simply give an unchecked authority over pre-school children to a school teacher and you will find that in due time the teacher will be corrupted by the power. Give power to an office employee to use it with his customers, or to a beggar to use it over other beggars, or to the president of the most governable country of the world, and observe what happens. Invariably, every human, with few exceptions, will succumb to corruption once they reach a position of power. And, corruption is not just about embezzling money or taking bribes but is about misuse of authority and degeneration of ethics. Whether it be the Iraq war, Moriarty’s bullying of Nepal, Gyanendra’s use of emergency power, or a school teacher beating a 5 years old child! Look at how a simple police officers abuse political leaders, or how clerks in tax offices torment ordinary people in Nepal. They all are examples of corruption that exemplify the misuse of power gone unchecked.

Then, if combined with secrecy, power will amplify the corruption more dramatically. Most corruptions are the product of activities carried out in secrecy and away from the eye of the concerned people. Look the CIA’s finding of the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq! If their secret world can impose such a horrible fate to a country, how many individuals and lesser known organizations in the world might have suffered from their hands? Add anonymity to that and you will take the corruption to a point of no return. Look at Guantanamo Bay! Corruption becomes the destiny of any system of governance lacking a mechanism for curbing power, secrecy, and anonymity. This is not to say that an individual should be deprived of self-control, personal privacy, and ability to live away from limelight. But when it comes to public affairs, the extent of power, secrecy, and anonymity must be strictly checked, or else they would become the poison pills for the country.

Therefore, the secret to curing corruption is to check the power itself. And, by this token, giving power to an incorruptible person is not going to eliminate corruption. Instead, the transfer of power will convert that newly powerful person into a corrupt one. This is a disappointing message for those in Nepal who are waiting for a godly leader to descend in their country to miraculously give them salvation. But, if they want to check the corrupting nature of power, they must know that “Iron cuts iron.” To check power, we need another power, and need yet another power to check the second power, and so on. Sounds complicated!

Then, if one power is going to be higher than the other, this whole notion of one power cutting another would fail. This is what happened in the process of decentralization of power in Panchayat system in Nepal. The corruption was decentralized along with the decentralization of power. And when Panchayat was down, the new leaders in power became even more so powerful and accordingly more corrupt.

The importance of the division of power meant to create checks and balances in a system has been known to us for a long time. However, systems of public governance seem to have failed to find workable mechanisms to implement that. This makes me ask yet another question, “Which system is incorruptible?” And, all ponderings lead me to think that, no system is incorruptible. Then again, I also know that a system could be made to minimize possible corruption and attain the state of least corruption over time by devising self-cleaning mechanisms in the system. This is similar to the way a continuously self-improving individual who reacts positively to feedbacks and corrects mistakes becomes better than an equally intelligent but arrogant individual. A self-cleaning system becomes the most efficient and the least corruptible over time.

A self-cleaning system requires that no one person amasses all the power and freedom in the expense of the others. For example, in a free market, a grocery store is free to set any price to an apple, and by the same token a consumer is completely free to not purchase the apple from that shop or any shop. This relationship, where both consumer and the seller use their own mutually exclusive power and freedom for their advantage, is an example of an intransitive relation. Both parties have an upper hand and lower hand but all four hands are of different kind and free in their own sense. However, if one extra rule were to be added to force the consumer to eat one apple per day, the relationship between the consumer and the seller would be transitive, i.e. shopkeeper has an upper hand over the consumer but not vice versa. For example, in Ontario, Canada, when a conservative government privatized the car insurance system while keeping it mandatory for all consumers to purchase insurance to register a car, many people who would have paid $600 per year in old system started paying $2400 per year in insurance. Instead of the cost coming down due to competition, it went up to everyone’s surprise. Here the freedom of the buyer was curtailed but not the power and freedom of the seller. From these two examples, a mathematically and logically inclined reader should note that intransitive power-relationship is the key element for developing non-corruptible systems.

The current division of power among legislative, executive, and judicial bodies was meant to check power. However, the epidemic of corruption is subsiding neither in Nepal nor in many countries in the world. This is because the exclusivity and freedoms are missing in that relationship. If a party first gains the control over the legislature, it can pass any law. Using the same majority, it can then control the executive and appoint operatives from Prime Minister to the department heads. The executives can then appoint operatives into the judicial body. Within no time, all three supposed-to-be-competing bodies get operated by the same gang. This is nothing but a recipe for breeding corruption. This is a disappointing message for the supporters of the current model of governance but should be a hope for those who want to rectify these problems.

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