On Corruption and The Purpose of Government

Definition: cor·rup·tion – the abuse of entrusted power for personal gain

As I watch the turmoil and chaos churning throughout the world, I know we are capable of so much better. People around the world share the same innermost human passions; that’s why great literature can universally move readers. I’m not naïve—there is evil—but beneath the pain and damage we inflict on each other, most people I meet are fundamentally good and given the chance, would seek to live in peace.


So, how does it go so wrong, in so many ways? Why are the governments we rely on to serve and protect our basic human rights, so frequently regarded with deep distrust if not utter hatred? Searching for those answers, I found more opinions than fish in the oceans, but when I held them up to the “big picture” none of the theories and concepts provided a holistic answer. Until I read Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson.


In a nutshell, the premise is that long-term prosperity is not merely a product of political and economic systems, but rather how the societal institutions are used.


Through historical analysis and research, Acemoglu and Robinson found that societies and nations which thrive are inclusive, in that they enable and protect political and economic participation of society as a whole. On the other hand, a comparable nation with the same conditions, but institutions (political, legal, economic, etc.) which are exploited for the benefit of a powerful elite to extract resources, will inevitably whither. The book is loaded with far better examples and explanations than I can provide—I encourage finding a copy to purchase, or check your local library.


In other words, while some political and economic systems may be inherently more inclusive (i.e. democratic) than others, what actually matters is how those institutions are utilized. Therefore, a benevolent monarchy may be far more inclusive than a corruption-riddled democracy.


A society or nation is a complex, dynamic system much like a physical body, and maltreatment of part (or most) of the body impacts the whole. Unchecked, the extraction of resources by a controlling elite acts like a cancer; blatant in some nations, while extraordinarily subtle in other cases—particularly when that extraction works to erode an apparently inclusive society.


I found this perspective to be profound, because for the first time the rise and (typical) demise of societies throughout history made sense. However, while it explained the significance of inclusive institutions, Why Nations Fail did not illuminate how those institutions fail.


Searching for that answer led me to a book by Sarah Chayes, Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security. This first-hand examination of corruption around the world described an eerily familiar systemic, dynamic mechanism used to extract and confiscate resources to benefit a privileged elite. The author used real-life examples from around the globe to illuminate how this societal cancer thrives and erodes the foundations of society, causing the same toxic effects described in Why Nations Fail.

“Westerners, especially Americans, can be separated into two basic groups. One camp believes in the necessity, and the virtue, of government…the notion that an entire government might be transformed into what amounts to a criminal organization…is almost too challenging to contemplate. The other camp is characterized by suspicion of government…The overwhelming evidence that the market liberalization…imposed on developing countries…helped catalyze kleptocratic networks…conflicts with this group’s orthodoxy. For most Westerners, in other words, seriously examining the nature and implications of acute corruption would imply a profound overhaul of their own founding mythologies.” – Sarah Chayes, Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security

 While digesting that, I watched the extremely powerful Ken Burns documentary, The Vietnam War, and consistently discerned two themes. First, all the governments involved repeatedly exhibited patterns and practices revealed in Thieves of State. More troubling, these failed tactics continue to be employed globally to this day, with the same predictable results.


Which prompts some reflections on corruption and government.


Suffice to say that this scourge is as complex and old as civilization, and not only impacts the victim but does collateral damage. More devastating than the mere theft of property or position or justice—corruption robs both the victim and those who observe it of their faith in the institutions of society, which undermines the legitimacy of the government.


Whether people trust a government or institution depends on whether we believe it serves the greater good with integrity, or is a tool wielded by a powerful elite. Like cancer, once established, corruption spreads and adapts to attack its host in countless insidious forms that are wickedly hard to purge.


Honest self-examination leads to a discomforting truth: corruption often includes those who may not perpetrate it but do enable it by turning a blind eye in exchange. For instance, convenient favors to satisfy some special interest without regard to the greater good—which is, by definition, a form of corruption in itself.


This is the inescapable reality – consenting to so-called special interest influence over government, legitimizes corruption.


Which leads me to conclude that corruption is the ultimate threat to the future of our world and the nations therein. Science and technology continues to transform the world as we know it at an ever-increasing pace. This results in a multinational scale of wealth and power previously unimaginable—and left unchecked, growing wealth inequity portends the consolidation of incomprehensible power, influence and corruption.


Nations fail. They do so almost inevitably. Human history is littered with the wreckage of failed nations.


The stark truth is, any nation will decline when corruptive influences (wealth and power) seize control of the political, legal and financial institutions to benefit a protected, inaccessible elite. Once rooted, it maintains control by nurturing divisiveness to subvert and dismember the inclusive cohesion binding a society together.


I see this process played out daily, and the tactics of demonizing those who are different continue to intensify and divide people.


The vaccine against corruption is integrity, and unobstructed accountability to a Rule of Law which is inclusive of all. The founding fathers of the United States understood the importance of protecting that Rule of Law when they implemented a system of checks and balances to ensure accountability—accountability which is maintained and protected by the freedoms of press, speech and assembly.


So, what to do?


I encourage reading the above-mentioned books. Do not accept the compromising of integrity and accountability of those we invest with power, because integrity is not selective. Demand transparency and accountability of government, while strictly limiting the corruptive influence of wealth and special interests. Resist divisiveness, and insist on problem-solving which is inclusive. Rather than focusing on differences connect with the deeper, common humanity we all share—which is why we need solutions that all can share. The other problems may be daunting but can be overcome, when everyone stands together.


Because if we don’t, humankind now has the capacity to create a world which fails.


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