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Global Corruption and the Role of Government

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The corruption of government officials seems to be as old as recorded history. For example, the ancient Roman senate passed laws against such political corruption in the first century, B.C. They defined a corrupt act as “whenever money is taken and a publicly-conferred duty is violated.”

Local magistrates in the Roman Empire were permitted to legally receive cash gifts of up to 100 gold pieces a year, but anything beyond this amount was considered “filth.” There was also a separate criminal category against what was called concussio, or the “shakedown” and “extortion.” A Roman official might claim to have a legal order against someone, and demand a bribe not to enforce it against the individual’s person or property.

Emperor Constantine issued one of the strongest decrees against corruption during this time in A.D. 331. Those found guilty of such crimes might be exiled to an isolated island or a far-off rural area, while others might even be condemned to death. A judge, for example, might be executed if he had acquitted someone guilty of murder for the right price.

Corruption Today in Europe and North America

High levels of political corruption remain today one of the major problems confronting people around the world. While most of us think of such corruption as primarily impacting the hundreds of millions who live in the underdeveloped and developing parts of the globe, it touches those of us fortunate enough to live in the industrially developed Western democracies.

The Berlin-based non-profit organization, Transparency International (TI), annually surveys various forms of corruption around the world by various measures and types. A score of 100 in their 2016 Corruption Perception Index means the absence of any political corruption. A score approaching zero suggests a society in which little happens or gets done without layers of governmentally corrupt processes for people to get through in their daily lives. TI points out that “No country gets close to a perfect score” on the index.

However, according to Transparency International many of the least corrupt nations around the world are in the European Union and North America. In fact, Denmark ranks the least corrupt worldwide, followed by New Zealand. Among the remaining top ten of least corrupt countries area: Finland, Sweden, Switzerland, Norway, Singapore, the Netherlands, Canada and Germany. All of them have scores of 80 or better on TI’s scale of 100 having zero corruption.

The United States, however, is only ranked 18 with a score of 74. That placed America just below Belgium, Hong Kong and Austria. But the U.S. did rank above Ireland, Japan and Uruguay. And, happy to report, America is above France, which had a score of only 69.

The most corrupt nations of the EU, perhaps not surprisingly, are in Eastern Europe, in those countries that had been part of the former Soviet bloc. Poland only scored 62, followed by Slovenia (61), Lithuania (59), Latvia (57), Czech Republic (55), Slovakia ((51), and Hungary and Romania (58).  On the other hand, Greece, a longtime member of the EU, only earned a score of 44.

Former Soviet republics further to the east are far worse. The Russian Federation and Ukraine only scored 29, with the former Soviet republics in central Asia – Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, for instance – barely making it above the low 20s range on the scale.

Corruption and Bribery in Africa, Asia and Latin America

The lowest TI scores are generally earned in Africa and parts of the Middle East and Asia, with some other very corrupt countries in Latin America. The most corrupt countries on the planet, according to TI, are Somalia (10), South Sudan (11), North Korea (12), Syria (13), Yemen (14), Sudan (14), Libya (14), and Afghanistan (15). But in corruption depravity, Venezuela, Iraq, and Haiti are not far behind them.

In fact, on the Transparency International scale there are hardly any countries in Asia, the Middle East, Africa or Latin America that make it even to the 40s mark on their political corruption scale. The vast majority of the countries in these parts of the world are in the 30s and 20s, or less levels under TI’s scale.

As part of their annual survey on global corruption a few years ago, TI also asked people the frequency with which they had to pay bribes to government officials of one type or another in attempts to get by in their daily lives. In North America, one percent of Canadians surveyed said they bribed someone in government. In the United States that reply was given by two percent of the people asked.

But even in countries that have long been members of the EU bribery was reported. The worst occurred in Greece, where 27 percent of the people said they paid bribes during the preceding year. In most of Western Europe the bribery level was around 2-3 percent of the population, though the number was 6 percent in Luxembourg. (The bribery question was not asked in Germany and Italy.)

Bribery is far more endemic in the rest of the world. Africa suffers from political bribery the most, with 42 percent of all those in the countries surveyed saying they had paid bribes. The most extreme case was found by TI in Cameroon, where 79 percent—almost four out of every five people—admitted paying bribes, with the number being 40 percent of the people in neighboring Nigeria.

In Asia, the overall rate of bribe giving was reported to be 22 percent of the population. The highest rates were found in Cambodia (72 percent), Pakistan (44 percent), the Philippines (32 percent), Indonesia (31 percent), India (25 per- cent), and Vietnam (14 percent).

Finally, in Latin America, the average bribery rate was recorded at 13 percent of the people. But as in the rest of the world, it varies from country to country. Among the handful of Latin American countries surveyed, the highest rate was in the Dominican Republic with 28 percent. Bolivia followed with 27 percent.

Around the globe, the most bribes are paid to the police. In Africa, 47 percent of the respondents said they bribed the police; in Asia, 33 percent; in Latin America, 23 percent; and in Eastern Europe, almost 20 percent. Worldwide, about 17 percent of the people in the survey paid bribes to the members of law enforcement.

Bribing people in the judicial system came next, with the global response being about 8 percent of all those surveyed. About the same percentage around the world said they bribed government agents for business licenses and permits, though again the highest rates were in Africa (23 percent) and Asia (17 percent). But even in the United States and Canada around 3 percent admitted paying such bribes.

Medical care is also a major area for such corruption. In Africa, 24 percent of the respondents said they paid bribes for access to medical services; in Asia, the response was 10 percent; in Russia and Ukraine, 13 percent; in Eastern Europe, 8 percent; in the EU, almost 5 percent; and in North America, 2 percent.

Corruption and Government Intervention in the Marketplace

Political corruption, clearly, is found everywhere around the world and people, regardless of where they live, do not expect it to go away anytime soon. Yet, in spite of its global dimension, corruption pervades some parts of the world more than others, and permeates certain corners of society to a greater degree. Why?

Part of the answer certainly relates to issues surrounding ethics and culture. The higher the degree of personal honesty and allegiance to ethical codes of conduct, the more we might expect people to resist the temptations of offering or taking bribes. However, economic and business analyst, Ian Senior, in his, Corruption—the World’s Big C: Cases, Causes, Consequences, Cures (2006), concluded that there were no significant correlations between high degrees of personal honesty and religious practice and less bribe-taking around the world.

A far stronger explanation can be found in the relationship between the level of corruption in society and the degree of government intervention in the marketplace. In a generally free market society, government is limited to the protection of the citizenry’s life, liberty, and honestly acquired property. The rule of law is transparent and assures impartial justice for all. Any other functions taken on by the government are few in number, such as a variety of public works projects.

Under these circumstances, government officials have few regulatory or redistributive responsibilities, and therefore they have few special favors, privileges, benefits, or dispensations to “sell” to some in the private sector at the expense of others in society. The smaller the range of government activities, therefore, the less politicians or bureaucrats have to sell to voters and special interest groups. And the smaller the incentive or need for citizens to have to bribe government officials to allow them to peacefully go about their private business and personal affairs.

On the other hand, the very nature of the regulated economy in the interventionist state is to short-circuit the free market. The interventionist state goes beyond protecting people’s lives and property. Those in power in the interventionist state intervene by using government authority to influence the outcomes of the market through the application of political force.

The government taxes the public and has huge sums of money to disburse to various programs and projects. It imposes licensing and regulatory restrictions on free and open competition. It transfers great amounts of income and wealth to different groups through sundry “redistributive” schemes. It controls how and for what purpose people may use and dispose of their own property. It paternalistically imposes legal standards influencing the ways we may live, learn, associate, and interact with others around us.

Those in the government who wield these powers hold the fate of virtually everyone in their decision-making hands. It is inevitable that those drawn to employment in the political arena often will see the potential for personal gain in how and for whose benefit or harm they apply their vast life-determining decrees and decisions. Some will be attracted to such “public service” because they are motivated by ideological visions they dream of imposing for the “good of humanity.”

Some will see that bribing those holding this political power is the only means to attain their ends. This may be to restrict or prohibit competition in their own corner of the market or to acquire other people’s money through coercive redistribution. For others, however, bribing those who hold the regulatory reins may be the only way to get around restrictions that prevent them from competing on the market and earning a living.

The business of the interventionist state, therefore, is the buying and selling of favors and privileges. It must lead to corruption, because by necessity it uses political power to harm some for the benefit of others, and those expecting to be either harmed or benefited will inevitably try to influence what those holding power do with it.

The Correlation between Economic Freedom and Freedom 
from Corruption

For 23 years the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., have sponsored an annual Index of Economic Freedom (IEF). The IEF tracks a series of 10 measured indicators that include the following: (1) business freedom; (2) trade freedom; (3) level of fiscal burden; (4) size of government; (5) degree of monetary stability; (6) investment freedom; (7) financial freedom; (8) protected private property rights and the general rule of law; (9) flexible labor markets; and (10) freedom from corruption.

The premise is that the greater the degree of individual freedom, the more secure property rights, the smaller the size and intrusiveness of government in the marketplace, and the greater the open competitive market environment at home and in foreign trade, then the more likely a society will experience rising prosperity and higher standards of living over time.

No country in the world is free from some degree of government intervention and regulation. The nineteenth century era of relatively laissez-faire, unfortunately, has been long gone. But the extent to which governments intrude into the economic, social, and personal activities of their citizens does vary significantly around the globe. This includes the extent to which citizens are protected by an impartial enforcement of the rule of law, have the freedoms of association, the press, and religion, and the right to democratically participate in the selection of those who hold political office.

The Index of Economic Freedom, in its 2017 edition, estimates that based on composite scores of all ten indicators, the greatest amount of economic freedom can be found in the following parts of the world: Hong Kong, Singapore, New Zealand, Switzerland, Australia, Estonia, Canada, the United Arab Emirates, Ireland, and Chile. The United States ranks only 17 in the world by the Index of Economic Freedom benchmarks. Ten years ago, before the Barack Obama presidency, America ranked fourth in the world.

Regionally, North America, Western Europe, and Australia/New Zealand are estimated by Transparency International to be the areas of the world in which the lowest rates of corruption are to be found. The Index of Economic Freedom also ranks these parts of the globe as generally having the greatest amount of economic freedom, or the least intrusion of government intervention (broadly defined) within the marketplace.

On the other hand, Africa, Asia, and Latin America are the parts of the globe with the highest reported amounts of bribery, and are also the areas that IEF estimates as far lower in the global rankings for degrees of economic freedom. Among the 180 countries included in the Index of Economic Freedom, many (though certainly not all) of the ones that Transparency International estimates as having particularly high levels of corruption are ranked at the bottom one-third in terms of economic freedom from government intrusion.

The correlation between a global low ranking in terms of economic freedom and a high reported rate of political corruption is certainly not one-to-one. There are many variables at work, including the extent to which different types of freedom used in the IEF surveys are restricted in the respective countries. Thus, domestic property rights might be legally more secure in one country compared to others, but that country may have a higher rate of price inflation and more restricted labor markets, resulting in it having a lower economic freedom ranking in the index compared to other nations.

But the assertion can be safely made that the wider and more intrusive the degree of government intervention, the greater the likelihood of a higher level of experienced and perceived corruption. The more the government regulates, controls, and interferes with transactions in the marketplace (e.g., through price and production controls, or import and export restrictions and quotas, or business licensing and permit rules, or high, complex, and arbitrary taxation), the more need and incentive for people to bribe those in political power to free or reduce the heavy hand of government over their lives.

Ending global political corruption in its various “petty” and “grand” forms, therefore, will only come with the removal of government from social and economic life. When government is limited to protecting our lives and property, there will be little left to buy and sell politically. Corruption then will be an infrequent annoyance and occasional scandal, rather than an inescapable aspect of today’s social and economic life around the world.

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    Dr. Richard M. Ebeling is the BB&T Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership at The Citadel. He was formerly professor of Economics at Northwood University, president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).