21 May 2013

Corruption in theory and practice

Corruption is "the abuse of public office for private gain." That means that the salesman who gives discounts for sex or offers bribes to bureaucrats to get contracts is not corrupt. He is, respectively, a thief and an opportunist.

But corruption -- to me -- is not just about public officials taking money to do the wrong thing. I also include public officials who knowingly implement policies that match their beliefs (religious, racial, social, etc.) instead of policies that create the greatest benefit to society.* They are not getting a direct cash benefit as much as an indirect personal satisfaction at forcing others to their will.**

So we get to ask if the US Government's Minerals Management Service was corrupt in one (accepting sex and drugs from energy companies, including BP, before Deep Water Horizon) or both ways (also thinking that energy companies need more space to get 'er done). I already blamed Deepwater on the regulators, but now I have two reasons to.

How do you think of corruption?

* For example, IRS officials chasing Tea Partiers. (My solution to that abuse of power, btw, is to simplify the tax code so the IRS has no discretion.)

** For example:
Public officials have their own biases and motivations. Most officials try to do the right thing, but no one can deny that at some times and places, official judgments can be distorted by the pressures imposed by powerful interests. And even if they are well-motivated, officials are human and hardly immune to the kinds of behavioral biases that affect ordinary people.


Jay said...

This post provokes a number of responses from me.

Moral Hazard and Rent Seeking Behavior are important elements to consider when developing public policies. Try to structure policies to avoid both.

I agree that simplifying the tax code is a good reaction to IRS abuse of power. The corporate tax provisions are full of unintended consequences.

As Dan Gilbert points out in "Stumbling on Happiness", people - from infants on up - love to exercise control. As people get older there is a portion of the population who feels gratification by extending control over the lives of others. When these individuals face no consequences (or insufficient consequences) they can achieve much mischief.

Lastly, much of the public policy debate seems to me - in the immortal words of Michael Westen of "Burn Notice" - "Like playing checkers with a three year old." They can't look even one move ahead, and when things don't turn out as they imagined, they change the rules.

Dan Gilbert also talked about this behavior in "Stumbling on Happiness". He called it the "filling in trick" of peoples imagination. It turns out the imagination is not very accurate.

Anonymous said...

Sigh. The IRS "targeted" other groups and denied some progressive groups of the exempt status. But don't let facts get in the way of your narrative...........

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