I have never found a culture that truly endorses straight-up bribery. There may be no culture which actually teaches that a suitcase full of cash privately given to an official in exchange for a benefit to which the payor is not legally entitled is a good thing, one that we should not deter even if we could.
The debates about culture and corruption concern the margins of bribery — gift-giving, nepotism, etc. — not about whether bribery in its purest form is good.
But there are many communities that have resigned themselves to bribery as necessary or, worse yet, inevitable – something that is inherent in human sociality, and unchangeable. I have long searched for the metaphor to describe this misperception. I think I’ve found it.
It came to me during a recent backpacking trip in a remote wilderness area. Backpackers among us may already see where this is going.
It occurs to me that certain cultures wrongly perceive official corruption as the equivalent of what I will politely call going to the bathroom. It is dirty. Disease-ridden. Repulsive to decent people. But it is not something that can be eliminated. It is humanly necessary. We may change the way we talk about it, and how and when we go about it, but we cannot escape it.
Different cultures will deal with it differently. Some will confine it to private spaces. Others, particularly in developing countries, will do it in the open. I once stopped at an Indian roadside rest area only to find that their “toilets” were actually “outside toilets,” meaning you squat wherever you want. No different than in the wilderness area (the “state of nature” in more ways than one?) but with people all around. No shame there, and no effort to conceal.
By contrast, I came off that hike and stopped by a luxurious ski lodge. The bathrooms had marble countertops, brass fixtures, all manner of perfumes and pamperings. But guess what? The guy in the stall next to me was engaged in exactly the same act as the truck driver at the Indian roadside stop. Because you cannot change it. We all do it. We all must. It’s necessary to our survival.
And this is precisely the misperception that anti-corruption advocates need to address. If we are to effect change, we must persuade people that corruption is NOT like going to the bathroom. Systemic corruption is not inherent in human society. We may never succeed in eliminating corruption, any more than we may succeed in eliminating murder or assault. But we can reduce it tremendously. Just ask folks in such diverse places as Denmark, Singapore, New Zealand, Norway, Hong Kong, Sweden, the Netherlands. It can be done.
And we need not sound crazy when we suggest as much. If some kind of advanced life form from another planet were come to Earth and say, “hey, we’ve found a way to completely eliminate the production of solid human waste,” we’d say, “get out of here, weirdo, go back to where you came from.” It would sound absolutely crazy, unbelievable. I very much doubt that a single cent of credible medical research is now devoted to exploring the possibility of eliminating that biological process from the human body. We wouldn’t think of it.
And this is the hurdle we must overcome. We must work to convince all persons, no matter their culture or socioeconomic status or form of government, that corruption can and should be addressed. It should be controlled — not just diverted but actually reduced.
You know those once-famous bumper stickers, containing that phrase that Forrest Gump comically claimed to coin, the one we still sometimes hear when bad stuff occurs? You know how we sometimes just shrug our shoulders and say “it” happens?
Well, that’s a terrible way to think about bribery.
Andy Spalding is a Senior Editor of the FCPA Blog and Assistant Professor at the University of Richmond School of Law.