Brown bag political corruption is tip of the iceberg

March 29, 2010 11:13 AM

Buying politicians is of all times. For as long as there are politicians, some will be bought. We have tried to tackle it for hundreds of years. With some success: open corruption is certainly less rife here than in other countries. Tackling it directly (with registers of interest, criminal sanctions, etc.) will never root it out, as it merely tackles the effect of the phenomenon. The cause of political corruption is the enormous power politicians have. The only way to reduce corruption is by reducing the size of government.


Whenever we travel to countries where corruption is rife we feel faintly superior. I once shared a train compartment with one person who was important in the Indian port administration, and another who was high up in the Indian postal services. When I said I was in politics they excitedly said “that I would become very rich!”. I tried to explain that corruption was illegal and they quite agreed that it should be so: that asking 2 or 3 % on contracts was OK, but that some politicians were greedy and asked for 10 % !


The mistake we make when we compare ourselves favourably with more corrupt countries is to believe that the money with which politicians are bought comes in brown bags. In fact, apart from a few notorious examples, is is my belief that the brown bags, or the all expenses paid holiday, or the stay on the yacht, are only the tip of the iceberg. The most widespread method to buy politicians is virtually untraceable. It is The Favour.


Often not even asked for (but counted on tacitly) returning The Favour may happen many years after the original event. It may be in favour of a family member. It may be absolutely impossible to trace: e.g. entrepreneur A asking entrepreneur B to give politician C's daughter a summer placement. The extent of this sort of corruption must be absolutely massive – and the media has not even started to show any interest in it. 


Yet those who want to clamp down on political corruption are missing one crucial fact. Cause and effect of the problem are confused. Politicians are bought because they are worth buying. The more power politicians have, the higher the return is for the buyer. Political corruption is typically much more rampant where the state wields enormous power. Or as Lord Acton said: Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. You want less political corruption? Then you should take power away from politicians and slim the state to its absolute minimum.


Statists will interject that there is just as much corruption in the private sector. Possibly. But the effect is quite different. Private sector corruption may be at the expense of the shareholders or the consumers. But nobody is forced to hold shares, and few are forced to buy a specific product. Yet everybody is coerced into paying taxes. There is no escape: when business, interest groups and politicians conspire, it is a conspiracy against the taxpayer. Public corruption is infinitely worse than private corruption.


I must end this with a brief disclaimer. I've meddled into politics for the last twenty-four years. And contrary to the popular perception, I have encountered very little corruption. I can only think of two instances where I suspected something was going on. It was tried on me though: one lobbyist certainly tried to wine and dine me and, when I resisted his avances, I suffered the consequences. But we will never know the true extent of political corruption – because it is almost always untraceable and unproveable.

JP Floru is a City of Westminster Councillor and a Fellow of the Adam Smith Institute.

Buying politicians is of all times. For as long as there are politicians, some will be bought. We have tried to tackle it for hundreds of years. With some success: open corruption is certainly less rife here than in other countries. Tackling it directly (with registers of interest, criminal sanctions, etc.) will never root it out, as it merely tackles the effect of the phenomenon. The cause of political corruption is the enormous power politicians have. The only way to reduce corruption is by reducing the size of government.


Whenever we travel to countries where corruption is rife we feel faintly superior. I once shared a train compartment with one person who was important in the Indian port administration, and another who was high up in the Indian postal services. When I said I was in politics they excitedly said “that I would become very rich!”. I tried to explain that corruption was illegal and they quite agreed that it should be so: that asking 2 or 3 % on contracts was OK, but that some politicians were greedy and asked for 10 % !


The mistake we make when we compare ourselves favourably with more corrupt countries is to believe that the money with which politicians are bought comes in brown bags. In fact, apart from a few notorious examples, is is my belief that the brown bags, or the all expenses paid holiday, or the stay on the yacht, are only the tip of the iceberg. The most widespread method to buy politicians is virtually untraceable. It is The Favour.


Often not even asked for (but counted on tacitly) returning The Favour may happen many years after the original event. It may be in favour of a family member. It may be absolutely impossible to trace: e.g. entrepreneur A asking entrepreneur B to give politician C's daughter a summer placement. The extent of this sort of corruption must be absolutely massive – and the media has not even started to show any interest in it. 


Yet those who want to clamp down on political corruption are missing one crucial fact. Cause and effect of the problem are confused. Politicians are bought because they are worth buying. The more power politicians have, the higher the return is for the buyer. Political corruption is typically much more rampant where the state wields enormous power. Or as Lord Acton said: Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. You want less political corruption? Then you should take power away from politicians and slim the state to its absolute minimum.


Statists will interject that there is just as much corruption in the private sector. Possibly. But the effect is quite different. Private sector corruption may be at the expense of the shareholders or the consumers. But nobody is forced to hold shares, and few are forced to buy a specific product. Yet everybody is coerced into paying taxes. There is no escape: when business, interest groups and politicians conspire, it is a conspiracy against the taxpayer. Public corruption is infinitely worse than private corruption.


I must end this with a brief disclaimer. I've meddled into politics for the last twenty-four years. And contrary to the popular perception, I have encountered very little corruption. I can only think of two instances where I suspected something was going on. It was tried on me though: one lobbyist certainly tried to wine and dine me and, when I resisted his avances, I suffered the consequences. But we will never know the true extent of political corruption – because it is almost always untraceable and unproveable.

JP Floru is a City of Westminster Councillor and a Fellow of the Adam Smith Institute.

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