Corruption [[Part III]

According to recent news reports, a significant amount of the damage caused by the flooding in Pakistan may well be the result of pressure on officials not to breach certain dams in order to release the flood waters into a designated flood plain – because individuals and families of the elite who were well-connected were using the flood plain to grow cash crops and didn’t want to lose their investment.  In short, these individuals pressured an official to do something to their benefit and to the detriment of millions of small farmers who had no such influence.

Corruption?  Certainly, at least one news story played it that way.

But what is corruption exactly?  Is it the use of money or influence to gain special favors from officials that others cannot obtain?  Is it using such influence to avoid the restrictions placed on others by law?

Are such practices “corruption” if they are widely practiced in a society and if anyone can bribe or influence an office-holder or law enforcement official, provided they have enough money?  What is the ethical difference between a campaign contribution and a direct bribe to an elected official?  While one is legal under U.S. law, is there any ethical difference between the two?  Aren’t both seeking to influence the official to gain an advantage not open to others?

And what is the ethical difference between hiring a high-priced attorney to escape the consequences of the law and bribing a police officer to have the charges dismissed… or never brought?  In the USA, such bribes are illegal and considered corrupt, but those with fame and fortune hire legal champions to effect the same end… with means that are legal.  So Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan and others escape the legal consequences of their actions – or get off with wrist slaps – while those without resources serve time.

In legal and “official” terms, Northern European derived societies generally have the least “permissive” definition or outlook on what they term corruption. But are these societies necessarily more ethical – or do they just have more rules… and perhaps rules that restrict how money and influence can be used to accomplish personal ends?  Rules that limit what most individuals can do… but not all individuals?

Under the current law – at least until or unless Congress finds a way to change it – corporations now have the right to spend essentially unlimited funds to campaign for legislative changes during an election. As I read the Supreme Court decision, corporations can’t directly say that Candidate “X” is bad because he or she supports or opposes certain legislation, but they can say that any candidate who does is “bad.”  In effect, then, U.S. law allows unlimited funding to influence public policy through the electoral process, but strictly forbids the smallest of direct payments to office holders.  One could conclude from this that the law allows only the largest corporations to influence politicians.  If corruption is defined as giving one group an unfair advantage, isn’t that a form of legalized corruption?

But could it just be that that, in ethical terms, corruption exists in all societies, and only the definition of corruption varies?  And could it also be that a society that outlaws direct bribery of officials, but then legalizes it in an indirect form for those with massive resources is being somewhat hypocritical?  In the USA, we can talk about being a society of laws, but we’ve set up the system so that the laws operate differently for those with resources and those without.  While I’m no fan of the Tea Party movement, this disparity in the way the “system” operates is another facet behind that movement, one that, so far, has not been widely verbalized.  Yet… who can blame those in the movement for feeling that the system operates differently for them?

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