7.2.5  Corruption

(This is a current extract from the Patterns of Power Repository.  An archived copy of this page is held at http://www.patternsofpower.org/edition02/725.htm)

Corruption is defined here as the use of an inducement to persuade someone to do, or not to do, their duty.  Despite it being mostly illegal, it is present in varying degrees everywhere in the world.  It is classified as self-protection because the decision to pay a bribe to an official, for example, is a decision to use one's own resources (money) rather than to call for the law to be enforced; the person who pays a bribe and the person accepting it are both participants in the same corruption, and both are operating outside the law. 

Corruption can undermine all the dimensions of governance:

·      The efficient working of the Economic Dimension of power relies upon the laws of supply and demand (3.3.2), but these are undermined if buyers demand a bribe before placing an order on a particular company or if some suppliers use extravagant hospitality to persuade customers to place orders.

·      Some government officials demand bribes before granting licences.  Every aspect of political control can be an opportunity for corruption.  Corruption by employees of the State has the same economic impact as increasing the administration costs of government (3.2.3): it benefits those who take the money but it slows down the rest of the economy.

·      When the Catholic Church allowed the practice of buying indulgences (the payment of money to reduce the length of time in Purgatory before going to Heaven) it was implying that God could be bribed.  This undermined the Church's authority, and Martin Luther's indignation at the practice led directly to the Reformation.[1]

·      People sometimes offer inducements to policemen and legal officials, to escape or reduce a punishment; they thereby undermine the governance provisions in the Legal Dimension.

·      People offer inducements to politicians in order to get favourable decisions; this behaviour distorts the balance of negotiations in the Political Dimension.

Corruption can either be initiated by individuals who have power, or by individuals and organisations seeking to have that power used in their favour.  Once started, it quickly spreads.

There are countermeasures to corruption in all five dimensions:

·      The State can take practical measures to prevent the possibility of officials becoming corrupt, which is analogous to an individual installing a stronger door-lock as a form of Self-Protection.  For example, technology has made it progressively easier to avoid using cash and even to bypass direct human interaction; a clerk might want to demand a bribe before issuing a railway ticket whereas computerised self-service removes any opportunity for corruption. 

·      The Legal Dimension can be used to combat corruption that has been reported.  Some examples can illustrate ways of making this more effective: 

      India's legislation on the Right to Information enables people to demand records of payments so that politicians and officials can be audited.[2] 

      The UK has made it obligatory to record political donations, so that people can see from where politicians have received funding and can then see whether the donors have received inappropriate benefits – but it can be very hard to prove that there has been corruption even when attention is drawn to possible cases.[3]

      The practice of ‘whistle-blowing’ – making complaints to the authorities – can result in prosecutions of the criminals.

      Police corruption can be challenged in the courts, if the judiciary is independent from them (5.2.8) and if the judiciary cannot be bribed.  Free and fair courts are the most effective remedy against any corruption.

·      Corruption can be combated in the Economic Dimension by use of appropriate accounting methods.  Detailed financial accounting and auditing make it difficult to conceal corruption, particularly if the transactions were computerised. 

·      Also in the Economic Dimension, competition can prevent corruption: if one provider demands a bribe, the services can be bought from a different provider.

·      Corruption can be seen as a Moral problem.  If people were brought up to believe that any form of dishonesty, including corruption, is wrong there would be less of a problem.  Certainly it is much more difficult to combat corruption in cultures where it is seen as normal behaviour.  It is not easy to quickly change a culture, but even in environments where corruption is endemic, individuals and businesses can stand against it and set examples to others by refusing to pay bribes – and there are prominent examples of this stance being adopted.[4]  This might result in the individual victim not receiving the desired service, which means that it is not an effective short-term countermeasure, but a consistent policy of refusal to pay can eventually lead to a reduction in the demands.

·      There are Political actions that can be taken to avoid corruption.  Deregulation is a help: if there is no need to have a licence before setting up a business, for example, then there is no opportunity to demand a bribe before granting that licence. 

·      Increasing political consciousness of the problems is another useful approach; investigative journalism is helping to uncover corruption and the growth of Internet use will amplify people’s awareness.  There was a recent example in the Malaysian elections, where YouTube played a vital role in denting the government's majority by showcasing sleaze and corruption.[5] 

Corruption is very common,[6] despite the fact that there are countermeasures which would reduce it.  Its ability to undermine the governance framework makes it a serious problem, so it is worth solving.  Its complete elimination, requiring both education and the strengthening of institutions, would take several generations.

© PatternsofPower.org, 2014                                                 



[1] Martin Luther’s Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences Commonly Known as The 95 Theses was available in May 2014 at http://www.spurgeon.org/~phil/history/95theses.htm,

[2] India’s Right to Information Act, cited above, was available in May 2014 at http://righttoinformation.gov.in/webactrti.htm.

On 10 April 2012, The Guardian published an article entitled How the UK can learn from India's Right to Information Act, which was available in May 2014 at http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2012/apr/10/india-freedom-of-information.

[3] There have been numerous high-profile examples of unsuccessful attempts to prove corruption when payments to politicians were subsequently followed by political decisions in favour of those who made the payments.  Two examples will suffice for the purposes of illustration:

Bernie Ecclestone’s donation to the UK Labour government was followed by a decision to allow tobacco advertising in Formula One racing despite it being banned from all other sporting venues; no-one was prosecuted.  The BBC published an article on this story, entitled Blair apologises for mishandling F1 row, which was published on 17 November 1997 and was available in May 2014 at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/31780.stm.

Political donations were followed by the awarding of honours, in the ‘Cash for Honours’ scandal, but the inquiry set up to investigate did not result in any successful prosecutions. The BBC published an article on this story, entitled Q&A: Cash-for-honours, which was published on 20 July 2007 and was available in May 2014 at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/4812822.stm.

[5] A Reuters report on 9 March 2008 included the following quotation: “Sex, sleaze and corruption were election issues and they all had video soap operas on Web sites.”  This report (which was also quoted in 6.4.3.1) was available in May 2014 at http://www.reuters.com/article/2008/03/09/us-malaysia-election-cyberspace-idUSKLR6139420080309.

[6] Transparency International measures the perceived levels of public-sector corruption in 177 countries.  In June 2014, the 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index was available at http://cpi.transparency.org/cpi2013/.