A Philosopher's Blog

Corruption & Gravity

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on February 3, 2012
English: Littering in Stockholm

Image via Wikipedia

The Daily Show recently featured an interesting interview with Yale Law School professor Jonathan Macey. One part of the interview that I found especially interesting was Macey’s “defense” of capital firms like Bain in terms of what seemed to be the necessity (in the logical sense) of corruption. Macey made the fascinating claim that social scientists regard corruption as on par with gravity-something that they simply must include in their analysis and something to be presumably treated as a natural force.

While I was on my morning run, I mulled over this idea in the context of my own classes and wondered about a key question: is corruption like gravity in this regard? Further reflection led me to consider what I take to be a better analogy, namely Thoreau’s analogy to the friction of a machine.

Thoreau notes that “all machines have their friction-possibly it does enough good to balance the evil. ” In this case, Thoreau’s machine is the government and the friction is the inefficiency and corruption of this government. As such, this seems to nicely match the point being made by Macey, namely that corruption seems to be a constant presence.

Both Thoreau and Macey seem to be correct: it seems  as difficult to imagine a large political and economic system free of corruption as it is to conceive of a frictionless machine. That said, there is still a rather interesting matter to address, namely whether or not the analogy truly holds.

It is rather tempting to simply accept that corruption is unavoidable, mainly because that seems to be the case. As I ran and thought about this matter, I saw litter on the streets, sidewalks and even the running trails (I picked up as much as I could carry). As might be imagined, I made the obvious comparison between corruption and litter: both seem to always be present and unavoidable. That said, there is still the matter of the nature of this alleged inevitability.

In the case of a literal machine, fiction seems to be unavoidable because of the nature of matter and motion. As such, a machine cannot help but have friction (unless, of course, truly frictionless machines are possible). After all, its friction is not a matter of its choice or decisions on its part. This might not, however, hold true in the case of corruption.

If the corruption of the political and economic system is comparable to the friction of a machine, then it would seem that being critical of the corruption and even blaming people for it would be as absurd as blaming an engineer because the engine she designed is not frictionless. The corruption, it would seem, would be something we must simply accept. The same would thus be true of litter-it is simply something that must be there.

As might be suspected, my comparison between litter and corruption is quite intentional. Litter is, obviously enough, the result of decisions on the part of the folks who littered. It is not the case that litter just appears or that people are compelled to engage in littering by the laws of litter. While some people will, it seems, always decide to litter it does make sense to say that they could, in fact, have chosen to do otherwise.  For example, I saw someone open his window and throw a fast food bag onto the side of the road. He was, presumably, not compelled to do this by some sort of litter law that ensures that the correct percentage of litter is on the ground. In contrast, the friction that slowed and stopped the bag was under the dominion of the relevant physical laws-the bag had no choice. As such, there could actually be a world without litter-if everyone decided not not litter, then there would be no (intentional) litter. This is unlikely, but it is not because it cannot be done-rather it will not happen because people will elect not to make it happen.

The same would seem to be true of corruption. The corruption in politics and economics exists because of what people elect to do (or not do). As such, there could be a system without corruption-if people decided to not act in corrupt ways. This, like a litter free world, is incredibly unlikely. But this is not because it cannot be done. It is unlikely because people will chose not to create such a system.

It might be replied that the system is beyond the control of people. After all, the political and economic systems involve millions (billions worldwide) and trying to fight corruption would  fighting a force of nature, like a tsunami. As such, corruption is a necessary part of the system.

Thoreau has an interesting reply to this sort of reasoning. He notes that he “has relations to the millions as men, and not mere brute or inanimate things, so appeal is possible.” It is also the case that although these systems are vast and complicated, they are created by people. As such,  any corruption (or litter) must be put there by people-the corruption (like litter) does not just appear it must be intentionally placed. If humans are capable of free choice, then they would presumably be capable of choosing not to have corruption-just as they would presumably be capable of choosing not to litter.

I suspect that people tolerate litter and corruption on a similar basis, namely the mistaken belief that it is inevitable and beyond our control. However, just as each bit of litter is the result of some person’s choice, each bit of corruption is also the result of choice. As such, the defense that corruption is part of the system is no better a defense for corruption that claiming that litter is just part of the system.

However, even if it is accepted that the machine of society  must have  the friction of corruption, then Thoreau’s words would still seem to apply: “when the friction has its machine, and oppression and robbery are organized, let us not have the machine. ” As such, while we might no more be able to be rid of corruption than litter, this is not a reason to tolerate it or to allow it to dominate. Just as I can refuse to litter I can refuse to be corrupt. Just as I can fight the filthy messes of litter created by the lazy and immoral, I can also fight the corruption of the wicked. At the very least, I should not contribute or tolerate the misdeeds of either.

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35 Responses

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  1. تبلیغات در گوگل said, on February 3, 2012 at 5:19 am

    You are a great writer. Please keep it up!

  2. T. J. Babson said, on February 3, 2012 at 8:32 am

    Smaller government = less corruption.

    • anon said, on February 3, 2012 at 9:15 am

      less corruption (maybe) in that government. Now the corruption is spread out.

      • anon said, on February 3, 2012 at 9:17 am

        Also, that would most likely only be in absolute numbers, not percentages (unless you were targeting corrupt individuals, but then again you don’t have to become smaller if you do that).

        • T. J. Babson said, on February 3, 2012 at 9:56 am

          I would argue both absolute numbers and percentages, as a smaller government would be easier for the press to keep an eye on.

          • Michael LaBossiere said, on February 3, 2012 at 10:29 am

            Reasonable-my experience has been that corruption tends to do better in larger settings, since 1) people can hide it easier and 2) a smaller organization cannot afford as much corruption (an analogy to parasites is one that seems to fit in that bigger organisms can sustain more of them).

            • anon said, on February 3, 2012 at 12:06 pm

              Still those are absolute numbers, not percentages. A single corrupt person can do more damage in a smaller organization than it can in a larger one. Think about the small towns with “good ol’ boy” systems. They are “small government” but more corrupt than larger organizations.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on February 3, 2012 at 10:22 am

      In terms of numbers. But what about the percentage?

      • T. J. Babson said, on February 3, 2012 at 10:34 am

        If the press are like cats and the corrupt politicians are like mice, reducing the number of mice but keeping the number of cats the same will make it even harder on the remaining mice.

        • anon said, on February 3, 2012 at 12:04 pm

          Less mice = less cats

          • T. J. Babson said, on February 3, 2012 at 12:15 pm

            No, number of cats scales with the number of cat owners = population.

            • anon said, on February 3, 2012 at 1:38 pm

              So more people are going to buy/create their own news station/press to increase the number of cats?

            • T. J. Babson said, on February 3, 2012 at 2:51 pm

              I will try to go slowly for your benefit, anon. The number of reporters is determined by the size of the population and not the size of the government. When Obama decides to hire a few more million government workers, CBS News does not hire more reporters in response. Get it?

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on February 3, 2012 at 3:20 pm

              Will the cats be reporters?

    • dhammett said, on February 3, 2012 at 12:26 pm

      “when the friction has its machine, and oppression and robbery are organized, let us not have the machine. ”

      Rage against the machine.
      No machine =no corruption.
      Of course, no machine also, likely, = anarchy.

  3. T. J. Babson said, on February 3, 2012 at 9:08 am

    Mike, do you consider yourself an enabler of this kind of corruption?

    A local Florida station invented an unprecedented way to check for voter fraud: jury excusal forms. NBC2 compiled a list of jury excusals based on not being a citizen of the United States and compared it to a list of registered voters in two counties. They discovered almost 100 illegally registered voters, many of whom had voted multiple times. “I vote every year,” one woman told NBC2, despite the fact that she is not a US citizen. The woman had told the court that she couldn’t serve on a jury because she wasn’t a US citizen, but she doesn’t seem to have a problem voting like one.

    Based on the NBC2 investigation, local election offices say they’ll now request a copy of every jury excusal form where residents say they can’t serve because they’re not a citizen.

    • anon said, on February 3, 2012 at 9:33 am

      You could at least provide a link to the actual story instead of copy/pasting it. In what way would Mike be an enabler of “this kind” of corruption? Corruption will always exist, there will always be people who will lie cheat or steal. The chance of corruption disappearing is probably the same as the chance that no ugly people will ever be born here on out. Starting a “war on corruption” will probably go just as well as the “war on drugs” has.

      Unfortunately the news story never said how many people are registered to vote in the two counties so we have no idea if 100 people a large percentage or low percentage. The people who are lying about citizenship on either form should be tried based on which form they lied on (if either, you still have to prove (innocent until proven guilty and all that) they were the ones who signed the forms).

      • T. J. Babson said, on February 3, 2012 at 10:02 am

        Just for you, anon, but the point is that those who oppose simple measures like checking IDs are enabling voter fraud, which is worse than littering in my opinion…


        • Michael LaBossiere said, on February 3, 2012 at 10:39 am

          I’m divided on checking IDs. On one hand, it does make sense to confirm that a person is a citizen and has the right to vote. On the other hand, it has been argued that getting an ID is a hardship or not possible for some people and that the move to require an ID is an attempt to disenfranchise certain voter demographics (such as the very poor-or, rather, “the soon to haves”).

          • T. J. Babson said, on February 3, 2012 at 11:03 am

            Among the things you need an ID to do:

            1) buy alcohol
            2) buy cigarettes
            3) buy sudafed
            4) buy Dust-Off
            5) take the SAT
            6) get a job
            7) drive a car
            8) cash a check
            9) buy a can of spray paint
            10) use a credit card
            11) go to the doctor

            Where is the concern about disenfranchising the poor over these activities? Especially getting a job.

            • anon said, on February 3, 2012 at 12:02 pm

              1) Friends, isn’t a requirement for living
              2) Friends, isn’t a requirement for living
              3) Friends, isn’t a requirement for living
              4) Friends, isn’t a requirement for living
              5) The SAT isn’t a requirement for living
              6) Nope, isn’t a requirement for living
              7) Nope, isn’t a requirement for living
              8) What kind of id, isn’t a requirement for living
              9) Friend/Nope, isn’t a requirement for living
              10) Nope, isn’t a requirement for living
              11) Nope, isn’t a requirement for living

              Anything else?

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on February 3, 2012 at 3:16 pm

              That is a reasonable reply: it is easy for any legitimate citizen to get a photo ID and it is something that almost everyone actually needs to do basic things. The main legitimate reply is that there are some legitimate citizens who might actually find it a hardship to get an ID (while being able to engage in voting, of course).

            • T. J. Babson said, on February 3, 2012 at 4:28 pm

              I suspect that if it is constitutional that everyone have medical insurance, it will also be constitutional for everyone to have to be able to prove that they have medical insurance and for this they will need an ID.

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on February 6, 2012 at 5:17 pm

              The constitution seems silent on the matter. I’d be inclined to say that it is not unconstitutional in the sense that finding a specific part of the constitution that it violates is unlikely. But people can see much in the text, so perhaps the Supreme Court will say otherwise.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on February 3, 2012 at 10:27 am

      I suppose, in the sense that I am not out actively crushing it. In that sense I, like God, am an enabler of many evils.

      How many of the folks who used that excuse were really not citizens? After all, if we think that people will lie about citizenship to vote, we can surely accept that people might lie about it to get off from jury duty.

      Given the low turnout by American voters, perhaps voting is now like harvesting our food-something we might prefer to leave to non-citizens because they are willing to do it. 🙂

  4. T. J. Babson said, on February 3, 2012 at 10:36 am

    “I suppose, in the sense that I am not out actively crushing it.”

    Didn’t you write a blog post in which you opposed checking IDs?

  5. Douglas Moore said, on February 3, 2012 at 1:38 pm

    Despite our cynicism, corruption is heavily influenced by culture. In many eastern countries it is fully expected that once one gains political office, one will begin to steal from the communal coffers. Actually, it is an acknowledged reason for entering politics. It is deeply ingrained. And it is the essential difference between fundamental rule of law nations and nations where money speaks far louder than words. It is easy to be cynical about what we see in our own system until you see first hand what the accepted practices are in other places.

    • anon said, on February 3, 2012 at 1:40 pm

      Get your logic out of this place, TJB needs to believe in his fantasy world.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on February 3, 2012 at 3:19 pm

      True. In the US, corruption is regarded as an evil and although practiced is condemned. In other places, as Doug notes, corruption is simply how things work. In fact, it is sometimes not even seen as corruption by the folks within the system.

      That said, we do have more corruption than we should.

  6. T. J. Babson said, on February 4, 2012 at 3:44 pm

    A glimpse into the Obama Justice Department:

    A U.S. Justice Department source has told The Daily Caller that at least two DOJ prosecutors accepted cash bribes from allegedly corrupt finance executives who were indicted under court seal within the past 13 months, but never arrested or prosecuted.

    The sitting governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands, his attorney general and an unspecified number of Virgin Islands legislators also accepted bribes, the source said, adding that U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder is aware prosecutors and elected officials were bribed and otherwise compromised, but has not held anyone accountable.

    Read more: http://dailycaller.com/2012/02/01/bribery-compromised-officials-leave-indicted-financial-crime-suspects-free-from-prosecution-under-holders-doj/#ixzz1lRajHrof

    • Douglas Moore said, on February 5, 2012 at 8:21 am

      Holder is awful. I can’t understand why he still has a job.

      • dhammett said, on February 5, 2012 at 2:23 pm

        He can join the list of attorneys general who were, by some, considered awful.
        Alberto Gonzalez
        John Ashcroft
        Janet Reno
        John Mitchell
        Robert Kennedy

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on February 6, 2012 at 5:19 pm

      On the one hand, that is certainly disappointing. On the other hand, if those are the only cases in all of the US and our possessions, then that seems pretty good from a realistic perspective.

      • T. J. Babson said, on February 6, 2012 at 5:27 pm

        Like roaches, you can be sure that if you see one or two, there are a lot more around that you don’t see.

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