Corruption: What reasons do we have to make a stand?

What makes corruption of any kind so difficult to tackle?   Sometimes it is the gap we feel between us and our government and the official institutions of the law.   We have a problem now and are dealing with this official here.  The bribe is a way of keeping it simple, so that life can go on.  This may be a bad relationship, but at least it is a relationship and gives us some control.  That remote system of government and courts seems to give us no relationship at all.

Yet as citizens in a democracy we need to recognise that there is a relationship, even when it does not feel like it.  We do depend on one another and on the system under which we live together.    We do not need to believe that our state and all its laws are perfect.   But we do need to recognise that there is an important purpose behind it, greater than individual personalities or institutions.   Our democratic structures exist to make society liveable for all, including us.  If we can see this, then renewing the state and challenging corruption is not a remote concern, but our responsibility as citizens.

But still the high costs and low benefits of resisting corruption can deter us from action.  My firm will not get a public contract unless a government official receives some money.  If I do not pay, my firm loses and the public who would have benefited from its expertise lose.  Yet one complaint from a disappointed contractor will not remove a well-networked official.     My stand would lay a huge cost on my firm, but the public benefit, if any, will be small.

This is an ‘each-we’ dilemma.  Each of us on our own gains little by a resisting corruption, but we, in numbers, can overturn the cost-benefit analysis.  If every firm refuses to pay, the game is changed – provided everyone plays by the new rules.  For such change to take place we need to work together, in targeted, collective action, supporting each other – if necessarily practically and materially – in the movement to create a new, more deeply democratic culture.

And an individual stand can have a prophetic power as well. In a recent discussion group we looked at the case of being pulled up for drunk-driving.   We considered how the personal cost of refusing to bribe a policeman could give us a reason not to act.  But one person suggested, I can still choose to refuse to bribe.  I can choose the night in jail and risk the criminal record.  I can suffer for it.  But then my friends and neighbours will talk about it.  People will be challenged to ask themselves questions.  I can set a precedent for debate, for something new.

Not everyone can take such a prophetic step, but we can all work together to renew the democracies that sustain us, if we see them with the eyes of citizens.

Fr John Moffatt SJ
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