The Functionality of Corruption

March 26, 2021

Corruption is a dirty word. All over the world people want to fight corruption because they feel it is unfair, unethical, and destructive. And it is. I find however that the solution given, persecution,  to be ineffective .  I would like to present a new perspective that in  SOME CASES, corruption fulfills a needed function; if you eliminate it completely, the side effects may be worse. It should be eradicated differently than through the penalty system. Penalties are at best a band aid.

In the Hebrew language there is an expression (I don’t know the source of it): a hole in the fence invites the thief. In other words, some people are weak in character. If there is something a person might cherish or want that they can get by exploiting the opportunity the hole offers,  those of weak character will be tempted to get in and follow up on their temptation.

What produces the “hole in the fence”?
We live in a high rate of change, and rules and processes (standard operating procedures) which were functional and applicable in the past, might not be applicable in the present. In fact, they often overlap and even contradict  each other. This creates a bureaucratic nightmare. Those that need service learn to circumvent the bureaucracy and get served through bribery. Through corruption.

In Santa Barbara, California, where I live, the procedure to get a building permit is very long and complicated. Those that need a permit for whom time is money,  hire an “expeditor,” someone who used to work for the building permits office and knows the ropes, knows the people there, and will help to get the  permit granted much faster. The expeditor gets paid for this service. There is no bribery of the people in the system. Nevertheless, the difference between this example and corruption is that expeditors and their services are publicly known and legitimized, while what we call corruption could serves the same procedure (possibly done for the same reasons) but in secret. “Under the table,” if you will.

Now imagine if the service of the expeditor was forbidden, what would happen? The bureaucracy would not function or would function so badly that there would be very negative impacts on the economy.

If one vein in your body does not function well, a neighboring  vein takes over and performs for the nonfunctioning vein. If part of your brain does not function, another part of your brain takes over to perform that missing function. There is a reason why there is a black market: the white market does not always work well. The same is true with corruption. If a bureaucracy is not functioning because it is outdated and complex to the point that it is not effective, a short cut is created with payola to make it function, nevertheless. As this is not legitimate, it is labeled as “corruption.”

The higher the rate of change, the more complex the system becomes and the more you need someone to take you through the maze to get anything done. And you pay for it.

In PAEI language: the (A) role and the (I) role make the system efficient. If there is no functioning (A) (the component that will keep the system from getting stuck in the mud), then (I) will take the place of (A). In developing countries (I) is strong because the population origins come from tribal societies where (I) dominated how relations were handled, not (A).

Another manifestation of corruption is abuse of authority: if you want a document to be signed, you need to secretly pay the person in authority  some amount of money. In many countries if you want medical attention, especially to avoid waiting in line for surgery, you must bribe the surgeon. That is abuse of authority.

How does this happen? Again, I suggest there is a lack of functioning (A). There is no control over surgery scheduling. There are holes in the fence and the thief is invited to exploit them.

With a high rate of change comes a fence that is constantly falling apart. In comes the army of lawyers to interpret what's going on. And the higher the rate of change, I suggest, the more corruption will spread, and the more lawyers will be needed.

Corruption enables a dysfunctional system to operate, to function. If you forbid corruption without fixing the system the dysfunctional system will dominate, and the government machinery will be paralyzed. The solution is not to use some ideological expectations such as, “Oh, we will change human values so people will be better people.” That won’t solve the problem of corruption because you're not going to change or fix human nature; there are people who cannot resist the temptation to exploit the hole in the fence for their own self-benefit.

The solution is to close the gaps in the fence and make the white market work so that we don't need a black market. Heal the sick, blocked vein, so we don't need the bypass vein. How can this be done? The recommendation I have given to governments I consulted to  is to establish a ministry of de-bureaucratization, to continuously work on changing procedures in all government ministries and agencies  and on all levels of government from municipal to federal, and analyze which of the laws are outdated and  reprogram procedures to increase control and efficiency.

The solution is not to preach that corruption is bad. It is bad, but preaching will not help. Close the holes, reorganize, replan, and resystematize—so that the system is continuously operating well, and there is no need for corruption to make it work.

Written by
Dr. Ichak Adizes