Corruption and Human Nature

Bribery and corruption have frustrated civilizations as long as there have been civilizations. Watch chimpanzees haggle over shares of food and you will be reminded of the deep roots of human self-dealing. (See Chimpanzee Politics by Frans de Waals.)

Humans have formal rule systems that chimpanzees do not have. Self-dealing becomes corruption when it violates the established rules. Corruption is pernicious because one enjoys the benefits of having rules applied to others without the sacrifice of complying with the rules one’s self.

Ordinarily, the solution is simple — enforce the rules on everyone. Corruption is only possible where an enforcement system is not working.

As much as we benefit from enforcement systems, it’s human nature to resent them more than we value them. Imagine you are at a stop sign and decide it’s perfectly safe to roll on through. Now imagine a police officer catching you and handing you a ticket. At that moment, many people feel angry at him, angry at the rules, angry at the system.

But turn it around and imagine someone else going through a stop sign. You want them to get caught. You don’t feel safe in a world where people can run stop signs with impunity. At that moment you are aware that you benefit from system integrity.

It’s human to want the rules applied to others while giving yourself a free pass. This aspect of human nature is deeper than politics, deeper than culture. It’s biological. We benefit from a system where the rules apply to everyone, but we overlook that benefit in everyday life.

Human self-centeredness is part of the solution as well as part of the problem. Where there are real consequences for corrupt practices, people stop because it’s in their self-interest to stop. Where more people value enforcement systems, those systems work more reliably. The temptation for self-dealing cannot be eliminated, but it can be harnessed to solve the problem.


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