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What should we think about Honest Abe’s bribery?

Lincoln on his death bed was called a ‘man for the ages.’ The new film about his life is likely to be one for the ages.

A top critic said: “Go see this movie … ‘Lincoln’ is a rough and noble democratic masterpiece — an omen, perhaps, that movies for the people shall not perish from the earth.” And 95% of major critics have praised it.

Did the great Lincoln authorize pay offs and bribes? Yes he did, but I am not troubled by that. Lincoln riding horseback slowly through yet another battlefield covered by thousands of bodies lost in close combat (vividly shown) is desperate to end the worst war in American history and to pass a constitutional amendment to ban slavery in the United States. The destiny of the grand experiment that is America lies in the balance. The fate of four million African Americans to be freed from slavery weighs upon his every move. The film brings his tired, restless determined ways into your heart. With such “ends” at stake, and in a war-time context, Lincoln used the “means” common to his times to get the thirteen votes he needed. Yet it’s no precedent for our times.

Lincoln’s vision was of a distant, different future, an America of equality of all citizens before the law and someday a fraternity among citizens regardless of color. Today, with a person of color as President, Americans of all political affiliations can be proud of the transformation Lincoln championed.

I’d like to imagine that if Lincoln was alive in our times he would have passed the FCPA in 1977 and backed the spread and enforcement of anti-corruption laws all over the world. I’d like to think that Lincoln’s sense of the “people” — as in a government of the people, by the people and for the people  — would extend to all peoples of our globalizing world struggling for a better life.

Of course, I don’t know what Lincoln would do or how, but Lincoln in the film had a grand historical, statesman-like sense of purpose. And he had the determination, like Churchill in the blitz, to bear the burden of leadership toward world-changing moral ends. Perhaps Lincoln could bear the burdens of visiting battlefields and hospitals and making back-room political deals because he never lost his sense of purpose.

What is anti-corruption work about anyway? Is it only about leveling the playing field for the major global corporations to increase profit margins by fair competition? Important as that is, Walmart’s allegedly getting a jump on the competition in store locations in Mexico is likely to be sanctioned with a major enforcement action, so case closed?

Another side of anti-corruption work looks at the conditions of people who are subject to corrupted governance. They don’t get the bribes and they don’t get to decide whether schools get built or another bribe driven mega-project gets approved. Global corporations need expanding markets and those are often found in developing countries with huge populations hoping for middle class lives. Walmart has 20% of all of its stores worldwide in Mexico alone. Corruption impacts development and goes hand-in-hand with the anti-democratic way decisions get made.

India’s Gandhi worried about the impact of global development on values he held critical to Indian life. His support for protectionism, of closing India to global exporters, may have cost the vast poor Indian population he wished to help. These are the hard decisions — requiring a sense of great moral purpose and a statesman-like willingness to bear the burdens of leadership.

How many of the world’s seven billion people live like middle class Americans, with political freedoms, free markets, democratic government, a decent standard of living, public education and a reasonable chance for their children to have a better life? How many global citizens live in failed states that resemble organized crime syndicates that enrich the privileged few at the top and violently suppress the rest? How shall the world be transformed by globalization? And, most importantly, who gets a voice and a vote?

Anti-corruption work requires patience. Just 35 years ago paying off a government official was legal and a tax deductible expense around the world. When the FCPA was enacted, large-scale enforcement was still decades in coming. Corruption persisted as a normal way to do business until prosecutions began in earnest in this century. Now compliance officers are part of a recognized and growing profession and global norms for compliance programs are becoming part of the worldwide business consensus to use collective action to resist corruption.

See “Lincoln” the film and you may find inspiration from Lincoln the man and his grand sense of moral purpose and determination to transform the world, one era at a time.


Michael Scher is a contributing editor of the FCPA Blog.

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