The Cost of Bribery

The bribery and corruption investigations of FIFA, the international soccer federation, are focusing on who has been involved, how long it has been occurring, and how much has been paid to influence the decisions regarding where the World Cup games will be held. These investigations are reminiscent of the 2002 Winter Olympics investigations which found that many members of the Olympics committee had accepted a variety of gifts, including money, vacations, travel, and even a collegiate acceptance and scholarship for a niece. In both cases, the allegations of bribery suggest that it is something that has been happening for so many years that it has become an accepted way of conducting business in the minds of many. So, why is bribery wrong?

When I attended a dinner show with a group of friends one of them put a wad of bills in the outstretched hand of the usher and told him we would like to sit near the stage. He accepted our money and put us so close that I could rest my elbow on the stage. I assume the usher kept the money and appreciated my friend’s generosity. We enjoyed the dinner and the show.

My friend, Bill, is a tour guide for people visiting the Middle East. The first time he crossed the Sinai Peninsula his group spent an entire day in a very hot room waiting for their visas to be checked. Another guide told him that to get through quickly he was expected to bribe the authorities. Thereafter, he charged an additional fee to pay the bribe and in his advertising he itemized it as a facilitating payment. He said thereafter it only took 20 minutes to get through the checkpoint and no one ever complained about paying a small bribe so they could enjoy an additional day of vacationing.

Juan, one of my students from Argentina, told our class that when he or his brother wanted to take the family car, their mother would never let them leave the house without having enough money to bribe a police officer if they were stopped. Juan said at that time Argentine police regularly supplemented their income by stopping motorists and extorting money from them. I asked what would happen if he refused to pay the bribe and he said he didn’t really know, but he thought they would cite him for some trivial safety violation before they released him. I asked him if he were robbed on the sidewalk would he would call the police to report the crime and he said absolutely not. When I ask why, he said, “If I’ve already been robbed once, why would I risk a second time by the police.”

These events illustrate why bribing is fundamentally wrong. The great Prussian philosopher, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), claimed that one way to test whether something was moral was to assess whether it could be universalized: what would happen if everyone did it? In the case of bribing, if everyone did it the bribe would simply become a cost of doing business and the advantage that the bride was intended to create would be destroyed. Therefore, bribing can’t actually be universalized without destroying itself.

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For example, if everyone gave an usher the same wad of bills to be seated for a show, the bribe would cease to provide special favors for one party because every other party would have paid the same amount to receive the same special favors. The bribe now becomes an additional cost of being seated and no one gets any special treatment.

Another important aspect of bribery that needs to be considered is the corrupting influence it has on the people who receive them. Security agents are expected to perform their jobs accurately and efficiently and bribes tend to destroy both of these criteria over time. Their accuracy is compromised when the bribes are extremely large, and their efficiency is destroyed when someone fails to offer enough.

Bribes also destroy public confidence and trust. People know when public officials are accepting bribes and they don’t like it. People cannot expect fair law enforcement if those enforcing it are accepting bribes. Like a cancer that destroys lives, bribery destroys any organization or country that allows it to continue. Bribery destroys trust and encourages people to participate in activities that are harmful to society, such as tax evasion, misrepresentation, and underground purchases. Some countries, especially China, Italy, and Greece, have struggled to eradicate bribery. They will not succeed in developing a stable economy until they can eliminate their culture of bribery and corruption. Bribing should never be viewed as a simple innocent business practice. It carries large negative consequences to both those who offer bribes and those who accept them. $

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