by Lyle Lofgren, July 2007

A friend once told me of an experience he had as a college student advisor back in the 1980s. A new student from Nigeria arrived with only two questions:

     Who does he pay for grades?
     How much does it cost to get an A?

My friend was shocked, of course. An American university is the ideal of a meritocracy, but as he tried to explain the system to the newcomer, he saw that the student didn't believe him. What kind of place is this where you can't buy favors? As I recall, he never saw the student again, so he doesn't know whether the Nigerian ever adjusted to our system, or if he's back in Nigeria sending out e-mails purportedly from an oil minister with a secret government slush fund that has to be sent to a worthy recipient.

In May of 2007, the World Bank Board of Directors held a petard-hoisting ceremony when they forced Paul Wolfowitz to resign as president. The main theme of his presidency was to eliminate corruption in the bank's client countries. His definition of corruption was an economic one: certain country leaders and their buddies were taking most of the loan money and putting it in their own Swiss accounts, leaving only a small amount available for development. Any economist will tell you this is not efficient use of bank loans. Under Wolfowitz's direction, the bank (predictably) used all sticks and no carrots, and so shut off the loans to those rogue countries. The poor citizens were put under more stress, because they no longer had even the small benefit of trickle-down economics.

In dealing with Wolfowitz, the Board of Directors used another definition of corruption: cronyism. He had arranged a bonus and a giant raise for his girl friend (a World Bank employee) when she was transferred to another part of government in accordance with nepotism rules. He said he was concerned that she'd sue. Why didn't he just sweet-talk her?

Bribery. Money Siphoning and Laundering. Cronyism. Nepotism. Bribery To Avoid Litigation. Most of us would agree that those are examples of corruption, along with a whole bunch of other cheating things that someone else does. I looked up "corruption" in the dictionary. One of the definitions is:
impairment of integrity, virtue, or moral principle; depravity; impurity; specifically, inducement (of a person) by means of improper considerations to commit a violation of duty.

All of the definitions given are about bad things, and so are all of the synonyms. Corruptus is the Latin past participle of corrumpere, to break, destroy, spoil, bribe, etc., and other English words from the same root are rupture and disrupt.

Evidently the evil effects of corruption include rupturing of trust and disruption of society. Not all societies are alike and therefore do not define disruption in the same way. Paying for your grades in Nigeria may not disrupt either trust or society, particularly if the system works for the Nigerians and everyone understands the rules and who gets to ignore them. We call that system corrupt. Conversely, the majority of Americans tolerate a society that Iranian ayatollahs judge to be hopelessly corrupt.

Meritocracy is an educational ideal: your grades should reflect how well you learned your lessons, and should predict how successful you'll be in a job. A diploma, after all, is America's Work Permit. Cheating or plagiarism is cause for expulsion, because it corrupts the meritocratic ideal. But what happens once you enter the working world? No one looks at your grades. After an adjustment period, you're expected to perform some tasks at a minimum competence level, but that's not enough to hold the job or to advance. You could try superior performance, just like in school. In the workplace, unfortunately, no one can determine merit on an objective basis -- there are no test scores, and modern work involves such complicated interactions and co-operations between people that success of a project seldom depends solely on one person. The best a boss can objectively say about an underling is the same as a kindergarten teacher's positive assessment: "plays well with others." Behind this comment is a judgement that your child treats the teacher with respect.

So the workplace isn't a meritocracy, and can't be one. There are really only two rules for success in an hierarchy, whether it's in America, China or Nigeria:

     (a) Please your superiors.
     (b) Reward underlings who please you and penalize those who do not.

Notice that there's nothing in those rules about maximizing efficiency or profit or anything else an economist could measure. Therefore, an economist would judge that system to be corrupt. Yet most people understand those rules. Anyone who wants to be successful must follow them, although it often means working at the border between the legal and the illegal. Our system runs on the two rules, so society is not ruptured and, from a societal viewpoint, following those rules is not corruption. In a tribal-based culture, you may have to belong to the same family or clan as your superior in order for the pleasing to occur, but that's a necessary but not sufficient condition: insult your boss and you're finished.

If your work involves interacting with clients, your behavior towards them will be critical in your boss-pleasing task. If the clients are customers and an income source, you must treat them well, because your boss prospers if business is good. The more you sell, the better, and the purpose of advertising is to convince customers to want something they didn't know they wanted. Selling people things they don't need could be called corruption in some cultures, but not in ours.

Now consider the problem of a well-meaning social worker in a government-run welfare system. Available funds are limited, and each client is a drain on the system rather than an income source. The way to make your boss happy is to limit the help you give, which means you must make value judgements, separating the "deserving" from the "undeserving," just like Wolfowitz decided which client nations were worthy and which were unworthy. What both the deserving and undeserving poor have in common is relative powerlessness, so if you treat them badly, they may give up and not return, thus saving cost as well as the strain of deciding who belongs in which category. It's hard on the poor, but it's not corruption: it can't be a "violation of duty" if it's part of your job.

The rule about pleasing your superiors works until you get to the top of the hierarchy. The Big Boss has no superior, except for vague entities like "Board of Directors," "Stockholders," or (in the case of politicians) "The People." With no specific person to please and no specified tasks, the Big Boss is usually lost, but of course can't admit it. No one dares say "no," so decisions, however harmful, are passed down the hierarchy. In a large organization, the deleterious results don't show up for years, by which time everyone's forgotten how they started off in the wrong direction. The historian John Dalberg-Acton (1834-1902) wrote the most famous thing about this effect:
Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.

This is another way of saying that, if you're in a position of power, you can use it without regard to damage it may cause to others or society, as long as you please your superiors. Most people who have heard Lord Acton's statement assume it's about political power. But at the time (1887), he was not writing about a modern government, but about the Doctrine of Papal Infallibility recently proclaimed by Pope Pius IX. The Pope had only God to please: the ultimate superior, but One who doesn't conduct a performance review before Judgement Day.

Since a CEO's decisions, no matter how poor, don't yield results until too late, Wolfowitz could have easily saved his job by being nicer to the Board of Directors when he had a chance. They would have ignored his little peccadillo about rewarding a girl friend, but he found a way to alienate a whole group of superiors, each with different agendas. They didn't like him, and he gave them a perfect reason to get rid of him. Alienating a whole committee requires special talent that most CEOs don't possess; they usually get bonuses instead.

The natural process in an hierarchy is promotion from within until you reach your "level of incompetence," a concept first defined in Laurence Peter's 1968 book, The Peter Principle. There's a logical explanation for the effect: you're promoted to the limit of your competence, then one more level, where you finally flounder. This is actually a good way to organize an hierarchy since you can usually perform, although poorly, one level above your head. That's because you know how the organization works. It's much worse to bring in outsiders at many levels above their competency levels, as often happens at the top levels of government administration. These administrators are chosen on the basis of cronyism or fundraising ability, and often have no idea what their departments do or how they operate. Now that's corruption, far beyond anything Laurence Peter posited.

Or is it? Every book and article I've read on worldly success stresses the need for social networking. Whether you want a job, a promotion, or an idea, the advice is always the same: network. That means knowing lots of people, particularly those who can connect you with someone else who can arrange something mutually beneficial. I don't see any difference between networking and cronyism. If you went to an Ivy League school and belonged to the right fraternity, even grades don't matter. Social connections trump meritocracy every time, in America as well as in Nigeria.

There are, of course, clear-cut examples of "violation of duty," as when a housing inspector accepts a bribe to approve an unsafe building or a patrolman takes a twenty in lieu of writing you a ticket. But those are rarities (at least the ones that are prosecuted) compared to politicians' behavior in the presence of campaign contributions. In order to keep the money coming for the next election, the politician has to vote for the donors' preferences, to "dance with them what brung ya." There's absolutely no difference between a large campaign contribution and a bribe, yet one is legal and the other is corruption. To a politician, a vote against a major contributor's pet project would be a "violation of duty," since the main duty is to be re-elected. With such a system, good governance loses, the voters lose, and in the end, politicians lose as the public assumes that all of them are contemptible. The only gainers are the media companies, and they didn't even have to bribe anyone to prosper. By our current standards, the media are not corrupt; yet, by degrading our governing system, they meet the dictionary definition for corruption.

Does this mean I'm in favor of Moral Relativism, that evil concept that preachers love to whack? No, I have no position on the subject; I'm just reporting the fact that, when in Rome, you see a lot of people behaving like Romans. I do have one dispute with the Moral Relativists: they believe that the boundary between virtue and corruption is flexible and unclear. I maintain there is no boundary at all. There is no slippery slope because there's no slope. Your downfall comes only after a hundred innocent decisions along a continuum have led you, unnoticed, far into the region that society defines as corruption. From there, you can serve as a bad example to the rest of us, who thank God that we're not evil.

But perhaps it's not a continuum. Perhaps, as with the microscopic world, there's a smallest quantum of corruption, an atom of evil, discrete, but, like the physicist's quantum, so small it can't be detected in everyday life.

Oops! I accidentally brought home a pen from work. I may as well add it to my collection. They'll never miss it.

[A friend (who wishes to remain anonymous) sent a response.]:

I like the corruption essay. It got me thinking about my Ethics and Morality classes back at St Thomas: Teleology (telos=end, as the end justifies the means) vs deontology (deon=duty, as duty to act properly). Your discussion of duty reminded me of Kant who said you can figure out if an act is good if you could will that it be a universal. So for example Nixon's corruption- he could have applied Kant's deontological test and asked himself if covering up scandals is a principle that should be universally applied. On the other hand, Nixon did the right thing according to a teleologist since he was simply trying to maximize the good by covering up the break-in and sparing the country the scandal and maintain the public's trust. If he'd only been a little better at the cover-up.

Another thought about corruption- as you said in your essay, bad people are corrupted by greed, and even good people will be corrupted by power, but some people- even good people- are corrupted by corruption itself. I work with a guy from China who explained to me how virtuous people in the government are forced to take bribes. Lets say you're a lowly government clerk. Mr. X approaches you and says, "Here is $1000 bribe for you to grant me a license. And if you do not take it your mother will be evicted from her apartment. Take the money, and you'll never see me again." So you take it. A few months later, a Mr. Y shows up with a photograph of Mr X and says he has a signed statement from Mr X saying you accepted a bribe. Now Mr Y wants a favor. You're hosed. Next thing you know you are the head of the Chinese FDA and are facing a firing squad, as happened last week.