Corruption, civil service and capitalism

Thursday, December 13, 2012

When I visited Tangier, Morocco, in 1994, I was struck by the entrepreneurial spirit of everyone I encountered -- from boys offering guided tours, to old men selling mint tea, to rug merchants hawking their wares in cramped shops. Each presented me with -- in French, Spanish and English -- a "special deal," a "tourist offer" or whatever enticement they thought might distinguish what they had from the hundreds of others providing essentially identical goods and services.

Although the marketplaces and public spaces were different, in my travels I have noted the same fundamentally capitalist impulses in Mexico, Iraq, Bosnia and other poor and developing nations.

Unfortunately, that same entrepreneurship also is present among government employees in many of these states, with the expectation that civil servants will accept bribes. Without question, bribery is a corrupting practice, illegal even in most nations where it is widely practiced.

The pervasiveness of corruption worldwide illustrates the maxim that a well-paid civil service is indispensable to civilization. When an airport inspector, police officer or tax collector earns poverty wages, it is understood that their official salary will not be the limit of their income.

Honesty crosses religious, ethnic and national boundaries, and there are in every society the incorruptible, who will labor at the lowest salaries while refusing the easy money of a bribe.

In general, however, the lower the salary, the greater chance that the morally ambivalent in government positions will see more advantages to accepting money from those who want their services, rather than acting with impartiality in all their public interactions.

According to Transparency International, the leading global organization that tracks the integrity of business and public institutions, no region or major civilization of the world is immune to corruption -- or without states in which honesty prevails.

While European nations, the U.S. and Canada dominate the annual lists of most straightforward nations, among the top 30 least corrupt are states from each continent and region, including Africa and the Middle East, traditionally thought of as hopeless in this criteria.

On the other end of corruption, in states such as Afghanistan, Haiti and Sudan, a government job comes with the implicit license to extort fees, fines, gifts, contributions -- whatever the preferred term for bribe -- for the civil servant to perform his or her official duties.

While rich nations such as Denmark, Singapore and Barbados -- considered among the most honest -- do have bribery scandals, the rarity of these occurrences, and the harsh prosecutions of those accused of violating the public trust, highlights the nearly unshakable integrity of their civil servants.

Corruption is not, fortunately, endemic in the United States either. Federal government employees, on the whole, are, according to measurable data, statistically honest and law abiding. While the regulatory burden on individuals and businesses can be quite onerous in the U.S., as much as these impinge on our liberties and opportunities, we should still be thankful that these obligations almost always are enforced with equal fervor on all targets.

As tempting as it might be to hope for special treatment from the IRS, EPA, OSHA or NLRB, it is far more preferable for none to be able to gain these advantages than for some to do so through bribery. It remains another question entirely whether the federal government can afford the present levels of overall compensation paid, with public salaries often higher, and rising faster, than private ones.

As frequent as are complaints about federal workers, it is not purely by accident that one rarely hears about U.S. civil servants caught in corruption scandals.

Some might argue that the bribes one might pay for a business license in Venezuela, or to make sure one's luggage survives customs inspections in Russia, are just the "cost of doing business." In practice, however, the unpredictability of demanded bribes, with the potential for repeated shakedowns by multiple government employees, makes corruption a major drag on the economies in which it is common.

Nations that have made significant efforts to raise government salaries, such as Qatar, Brazil and Romania, have seen accompanying decreases in public corruption, as well as faster rates of economic growth, improvements in the rule of law and greater foreign investment.

Capitalism emerges spontaneously when two or more people have available goods and services to trade with one another, and are willing to exchange with each other. Ideally, when governments form, they will rest as lightly as possible on these natural markets, providing the services only a state can provide effectively.

If a state can organize itself in such a way as to pay its employees adequately, remaining fiscally responsible while at the same time creating a financial and legal environment that disincentivizes corruption, its overall economy, civil society and rule of law will benefit from a civil service devoted to the state and their fellow citizens, rather than to those who offer bribes to achieve particular interests.

Wayne Bowen received his Ph.D. in history from Northwestern University and also an Army veteran.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: