Nobody dislikes bribery more than I do. The House, of course, dislikes it. … Nevertheless, members would prefer that their seats should not cost them so much.”

I’d been thinking about writing something on bribery for a while until my colleague Barbara Frye beat me to it with her blog this week on a new World Bank corruption report. The report details some of the obscure mechanisms for setting up the front companies and untraceable bank accounts that are invaluable tools for private bribers and government bribe-takers. When the WB tried to tempt financial professionals in a number of countries into helping them set up shell companies with hidden owners, a surprising thing emerged: people in rich countries with strict laws against money laundering seemed more willing to circumvent the rules than people from countries with looser regulations.

Another kind of official corruption, one that’s been around at least since the time of the Roman Republic, is simply to buy the votes you need to be elected to whatever office seems good to have. This kind of thing goes on in most countries, probably, to some degree, sometimes in full view of the media as in a notorious Czech town. Like Britain today, Victorian Britain was a rich country with strong legal and moral strictures against bribery. Since the novelist Anthony Trollope wrote about it so well, I’m going to let him explain why it’s so hard to root out corruption from politics – even to define it. In the quote above from his novel Phineas Redux, a Liberal member of parliament is chatting with a Conservative colleague about the case of a Conservative MP thrown out of office for vote-buying. When he is brought up to face criminal charges, however, there is unspoken agreement among the judge, jury, and prosecutor that the poor man simply did the usual thing – he had money, he wanted to sit in Parliament, everyone else does it – and should not face further punishment, and the jury duly acquits him.

Later in the same passage, two Liberal grandees talk over the case. “… No member of Parliament will ever be punished for bribery as for a crime till members of Parliament generally look upon bribery as a crime. We are very far from that as yet. I should have thought a conviction to be a great misfortune,” one says.

“Why so?”

Because it would have created ill blood, and our own hands in this matter are not a bit cleaner than those of our adversaries.

We can’t afford to pull their houses to pieces before we have put our own in order. The thing will be done; but it must, I fear, be done slowly, – as is the case with all reforms from within.”

Since Trollope’s day, we have come a long way. Politicians are actually convicted for corruption pretty often now, in some countries. In most of the young democracies and semi-democracies in Europe and the former USSR, “corruption fighting” is the rallying cry of opposition parties, especially those from outside the political mainstream. However, the plusses of holding office – including immunity from prosecution – can be so alluring for the wealthy that not even the distant threat of jail puts them off obtaining office by any means necessary.

“What must we think of such a condition of things, Mr. Monk?” says Phineas, the unbribable hero of the novel, to his political mentor.

That it’s capable of improvement. I do not know that we can think anything else. … In political matters it is very hard for a man in office to be purer than his neighbours, – and, when he is so, he becomes troublesome. I have found that out before to-day.”

Well put, Mr. Trollope, very well put indeed.

Ky Krauthamer

Ky Krauthamer is a senior editor at Transitions Online. Email: ky.krauthamer@tol.org

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