Digital Tracking of Corruption by Christopher G. Moore

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The website www.bribespot.com is devoted to citizens from around the world who complain that state authorities have demanded bribes to overlook infractions of the law or as an additional, informal condition to receiving a benefit or service. Corruption can occur around the edges of a political system, or may have developed as part of the culture.

Here’s a recent example of a posting from Thailand by a motorist who paid Baht 200 ($5.00) to the police.

3 Lane Rama IV Road, near Bangkok University, direction Theptarin Hospital.

They: 6-8 Police, most likely from Tha Rua Station were waving “all” motorbikes to stop. 2 were blocking left+middle lane.

Officer: You were not driving as req on the left lane but in the middle lane & showed me a plastic home-made-menu-pricelist lamented sheet with a list of all offenses & their prices. On the list: Driving in Middle Lane = 400thb

Me: But how can I be on the left lane, if u guys are blocking it and I need to swap to the right lane to make a U-turn? Shall I fly over?

Officer: Give me 400thb or u go police station & this take long time.

Me: opening the purse and taking out 200 thb and telling him I not pay more than 200thb (had a meeting and was in rush).

Officer: literally pulling my 200thb out of the purse and saying: Now you go!

Q: Is it illegal to drive in the middle lane to change lanes? Only in Thailand. Police Officers I guess, they fly over the middle lane.”

It is useful to start with an understanding of what corruption means. Corrupt or corruption derives from the Latin corruptus meaning to abuse or destroy. Corruption manifests on several scales:

1) petite scale – when bribery in the form of small gifts and personal favours and is tolerated within the larger normative values of the community;

2)  grand scale – found in regimes run by a narrow circle of plutocrats or tyrants where the political, social and economic institutions are subverted for the gain of the tyrants and their cronies;

3) institutional scale – where process and institutions are weak and are found in a culture of impunity where state authorities have little or no fear in exacting personal benefits. The weak institutions indeed may feed and indirectly encourage corruption by paying a low salary to employees and turn a blind eye when they supplement their salary through bribes.

Wikipedia has this definition of corruption in the context of policing:

Police corruption is a specific form of police misconduct designed to obtain financial benefits, other personal gain, and/or career advancement for a police officer or officers in exchange for not pursuing, or selectively pursuing, an investigation or arrest. One common form of police corruption is soliciting and/or accepting bribes in exchange for not reporting organized drug or prostitution rings or other illegal activities. Another example is police officers flouting the police code of conduct in order to secure convictions of suspects — for example, through the use of falsified evidence. More rarely, police officers may deliberately and systematically participate in organized crime themselves.

We will have at some stage Big Data from sites like www.bribespot.com to see patterns in the behavior of state officials. It may be that the data will confirm that at the end and start of the month, and near major holidays that bribe taking increases as officials are under pressure to pay rents, school fees, or buy gifts. What bribespot.com relies on is self-reporting. It is difficult to assess how representative of the problem are the cases that people choose to report. This takes effort to do. I suspect that most people can’t be bothered to self-report.

The other problem with corruption reporting is that, by its inherent nature, secretive and non-transparent, that it is difficult to prove. The motorist says the cop asked for a bribe, the cop says that is a lie. He said, she said is an eternal loop and the law mostly favors the police in the case of doubt. People aren’t stupid. They know that without concrete evidence, they are wasting their time to complain. And if they complain, police who are corrupt are more likely to intimidate a whistleblower than non-corrupt police. As the theory goes, once the cops break one pillar of the law, it is much easier to knock out other pillars to protect themselves against the law.

The Bangkok Post on August 21st 2013 ran an editorial titled “Corruption is a two-way street”  by blaming the corrupt official and the person paying the bribe. The editorial concludes that to be effective to stop corruption action must be taken against the state official and the person paying the bribe.

This proposed formula to solve the problem of corruption in my opinion is fundamentally flawed and fails to address the underlying causes. It treats all cases of bribery at the same level—one corrupt state official, one citizen paying the bribe. The illegal gambling casinos run by state authorities is an example of how corruption is often a one-way street. In some systems, the corruption is closer to an expressway rather than a two-way street, with eight-lanes filled with traffic. That is the problem with thinking of political solutions in terms of metaphors. They quickly fall apart when the metaphor is expanded to expose the scope of the problem. The approach championed by the editorial would be as effective as asking people to drop suggestions into an anti-corruption box.

As we’ve seen in the categories above, bribery falls into a number of distinct categories, each of which has special issues and problems that should be addressed.

In the second category, the Grand Scale, treating the bribe payer in a system of tyrants that act as rentiers and extractors as wealth and resources as equal to state officials, is missing the larger issue. It is the nature of how power is allocated and abused throughout the system. Corruption is a symptom of a much more fundamental political issue. To focus on the bribe payer is a distraction, it is irrelevant to finding an overall solution.

The same analysis applies to the third category, the Institutional Scale, where justice system operates with weak, highly flawed law enforcement institutions. The state officials act with impunity. To suggest that the bribe payer is an equal bargaining partner with such an official neglects the power and authority that can be effectively employed to compel a target by placing them under duress such as torture, imprisonment, heavy penalties unless a bribe is paid. To call this a two-way street would require a radically different view of how streets, rules and traffic are interconnected.

Thailand falls into the first and third category. It is a gift-giving culture and bribery is the slippery slope that gift givers use to glide out of a legal jam or to obtain a state concession or benefit. Many Thais don’t view the giving of small gifts to officials as a bribe. The attitude is reflected in the Thai phrase sin namjai—something like “gifts from the heart.” It is part of being kind and generous; the gifts give both the gift-giver and gift-receiver face, with the benefit of oiling the social wheels and keeping them moving. Such a gift-giving tradition comes from a system of ancient attitudes that worked in a small scale agricultural based society (which most of Thailand remains).

The problem is the attitudes are difficult to fit with law enforcement in large populated cities where more and more people live. In places like Bangkok, the cop isn’t someone the bribe payer knows and has a long connection to through family as would be in a village. They are strangers. The giving of the money isn’t an act of kindness and generosity; it is an act of desperation, made out of fear and anxiety.  The institutions of justice are weak as protection isn’t sought within an institutional framework but within a network of connections where a patron provides protection. The state officials are selective in enforcement of laws depending on the rank and status of the person they ask for money. If that is an important/influential person, then it is unlikely that a low-ranking state official will even ask for a bribe.

The same principle extends to protect the wives, children, relatives and immediate household of people of power and status. It is not just state officials acting with impunity that is a sign of weak justice system institutions, one also needs to look at the elites and ask whether they can act with impunity. If the answer is the police and the powerful are both immune, but others must comply with the law. Being in that privileged position there no incentive to create a strong criminal justice as that would make the powerful vulnerable. Weak institutions which they control directly or through proxy, can be more easily controlled. The tacit promise of a political system to keep the elites strong and institutions weak delivers: I’ll scratch your back, if you scratch mine. And all this back scratching will occur behind closed doors. It isn’t enough to say ‘don’t pay the bribe’ as that fails to address the imbalance of the power relationships and the nature of how impunity is distributed in a political/economic/social system.

Corruption shouldn’t be viewed only through the lens of cops taking bribes. It involves tea money for parents to pay to get into a school. Money paid for medical services or for installation of water, sewer, or electricity. Whenever there is a government service to be provided, the question is whether the officials administering the system seek additional payments before authorizing or approving the benefit. If the answer is yes, it likely follows that such the officials inside that organization are not only corrupt, and the institution that employs them is weak and can do nothing to counter the culture of corruption.

Corruption continues to work because we still live in a small data world. In a few years after the methods of surveillance have advanced another technological leap and become prevalent, and unstoppable, then it will be difficult for state authorities to maintain the essential secrecy that is the lifeblood of corruption. The Big Data Political System (BDPS)—the next stage of political evolution—we can expect advanced computerized system to monitor the behavior and conduct of its human agents and actors as well as the rest of us.

Our old more, simple world of free choice is slipping away. Nothing is certain as to our future world will greet us one morning. It may start with a news report: “A large majority of people agree with urgent need for preventive detentions and secret interrogations as a necessary precaution to support our government’s goal to protect all citizens against terrorism and corruption.” It will use nouns and not verbs. Actions will be downgraded, potential acts upgraded.

That morning may be sooner than we imagine. We will kick ourselves for not suspecting that corruption like terrorism while real, were a great cover for an invisible government to scale up its own culture, priorities and institutions.

Systematic monitoring may be sold and bought on the basis it ends corruption. But before you sign on, be careful for what you wish for. You might be trading one old problem for ten new problems. The BDPS coming soon to your country may extract a very high price in terms of liberty and freedom. We may find that we are substituting one culture of impunity for another. And we may long for the days, that we paid Baht 200 to a Thai cop who demanded it even though we committed no traffic infraction.

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