Is your country corrupt?
When I first traveled overseas, I was surprised to learn that many foreigners thought of the United States as a corrupt place--surprised enough that I undertook some careful questioning to figure out what they meant by that. The results crystalized my thinking about levels of corruption.
My own experience was that the level of corruption in the United States was low compared with other places that I've heard about. For example, in my entire life, I've never paid a bribe. In fact, I've never been in a circumstance where I thought paying a bribe would be particularly likely to help. I've also, with one possible exception, never accepted a bribe. (The possible exception was when I spent one day working as a garbage collector, and the experienced worker who was showing me how it was done let someone who wasn't a customer pay him a few dollars to haul away some trash, and then shared the money with me.)
The foreigners I had talked to about the matter, though, had an impression of the United States as the sort of place where rich, white folks had nothing to fear from a justice system that oppressed minorities and the poor--an analysis that certainly has enough truth to make fair-minded Americans uncomfortable, but that wasn't really in sync with my personal experience. (Admittedly, my personal experience is that of a white person of adequate financial means.) My own experience is that someone who commits no crimes is really quite safe from unfair prosecution. Someone who does commit a crime is in a more ambiguous situation, although calling the complexities there "corruption" seems like an oversimplification.
So, then, I created in my own mind a scale for levels of corruption. My scale focuses on the necessity to pay bribes, so it ignores other aspects of corruption (whether officials are stealing from the government, for example), which is not to say that I think those things aren't important: I picked this metric because I wanted anyone to be able to rate their own situation entirely on the basis of personal experience. Here's what I came up with:
- Corruption universal. This is where an honest person cannot get along without engaging in corrupt practices--refusing to pay the right bribes or offer the right favors will lead to things like being beat up, imprisoned, or even shot, along with having your property confiscated.
- Corruption commonplace. This is where it's theoretically possible to refrain from engaging in corrupt practices. You can choose not to pay bribes without getting shot or imprisoned, but things like getting a business license or a building permit become extremely difficult without paying a bribe. Getting the power turned on or a telephone line connected might take a year or more, but paying the right bribe can get it done in just a few days.
- Corruption optional. This is where it is genuinely practical to avoid corrupt practices, but some corruption does exist. In most situations it's never necessary to pay a bribe--but it's sometimes possible. Someone who runs a restaurant, for example, has the realistic option of following all the health and safety regulations--but also may have the option of paying off the health inspector instead.
- Corruption rare. This is where there's little opportunity to engage in corrupt practices. The law prosecutes criminals without regard to class or position, and innocent people are safe. Government officials follow the law on things like licenses, permits, and inspections. There is little opportunity to improve your circumstance by paying a bribe.
The United States is a big country--big enough that it pretty much covers the whole range. There are plenty of places where corruption is very rare and the laws are enforced quite evenhandedly, but there are plenty of other places where some low-level corruption is routine, especially with regard to businesses that work for the government being obliged to pay kickbacks in some form or another. And, although I've never experienced it personally, I don't doubt that there are some places where corruption is commonplace or even mandatory, especially within communities whose legitimate access to the police is limited (such as among illegal immigrants or prostitutes).
Transparency International publishes its Corruption Perceptions Index, which puts Denmark, New Zealand, and Sweden as the least corrupt countries. The most recent update puts the USA at number 18 out of 180 on the list. Down at the bottom are places like Afghanistan, Haiti, Iraq, Myanmar, and Somalia.
How about your country--or your community if you're in the United States? What's your experience with corruption?
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