Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Trickle down corruption

Where corruption begins :: the trickle down effect

A common statement I see nowadays in the news media: "we all knew corruption was rife at the lower levels, but how could we have ever imagined that the rot extended all the way to the top!!"

I started thinking about this recently while pondering about the origins of corruption and dishonest behaviour. Rather than saying babus do this, do that, I asked some simple questions by first putting myself in the shoes of a babu/public servant (crap, they imply totally opposite meanings yet stand for the same thing!).

So, let me suppose I'm a babu at the frontlines - I deal directly with people in some or the other govt department. Not a clerk; just some falaana (meaning this or that) officer at a falaana desk in a falaana department. Above me there's a whole hierarchy and below me there's a few people, mostly clerks. My job is.. well, something relating to forms and files. People of all sorts keep coming in all day clutching their lives in their hands for getting something that's actually supposed to be theirs without asking, and I have to inspect, approve, send, transfer, whatever. If I'm trying to do something sneaky and make a quick buck on the side that would contribute to my child's college education savings or that would pay towards the down-payment on that new flat so my family is guaranteed a roof over their heads, I'll probably watch out, scared that I might get caught. Now, who would I be most afraid of?

(side note : Education of children? Home and security for the family? Our babu doesn't sound so evil now, does he? NOW do you get my problem with the whole anti-corruption movement? We're all human beings, dude. Anything that dehumanizes anyone, even a bribe-taker, is simply not addressing the roots of the problem.)

Would I be afraid of anyone working below my level in the office hierarchy? Nah, if any of them dares to say anything against me, I'll teach them a lesson by getting them fired or inconveniently transferred or whatever. My equals? Well, the hierarchy is such that there's typically one or just a few persons at a level. And those guys are my colleagues. We share our lunch everyday, our families and kids know each other. They would understand. They certainly wouldn't get me screwed without talking it over with me first.

That leaves just one category : my superiors. My immediate boss, as well as his equals in other departments. Now, they call the shots. One thing out of line they find and it's GAME OVER!

I'd be really scared of a superior at work finding out about me taking a bribe. REALLY scared. If there's even the slightest chance that I might get caught, I won't do it; I won't take the bribe. So if I assume all the public servants in the nation are in a similar position as me, wouldn't this fear of the superior automatically keep corruption levels down?

After all, that's what the purpose of hierarchical organisation is, right? One guys keeps his subordinates in check, they keep theirs in check, and so on up and down the whole chain, from the lowest clerk to the highest position in the state. The entire point of having a top-down heirarchial power structure is to keep things clean and efficient. This should be the last place for corruption to happen. So why is corruption rampant?

Coming back to the babu's shoes... So I'm afraid of my superior. However, what if I know that my superior is also indulging in bribe-taking? After all, he plans to send his son for MS in US by next year.. even for taking a student loan, one needs to show a good enough account balance! And what's my small bunch in front of his big pile? Right, so since the boss is doing it, so can I! And heck, if someone tries to get me screwed for it, he'll cover my ass. Coz if he doesn't and I get the shaft, then Oh Boy, I ain't going down alone!!

Try to observe the immense psychological difference made by the knowledge that even the boss is cheating.
Bribery went from "watch out! be careful!" to "who gives a shit!"

So, Theory: Corruption at lower level becomes rampant when the higher levels are in on it too.
Corollary 1: If you see corruption being rampant at the lower levels, it signifies a high probability that the higher levels are corrupt as well.
Corollary 2: The direction of adoption of corrupt practices travels downward. aka, Trickle-down effect. Superiors practice corruption and then their juniors follow suit.

Extend this to all levels, all departments of government. What this would indicate is that if you find corruption being rampant at the lowest levels of a sector, it means that there's rampant corruption happening at the TOP. And the one at the top, preceded and CAUSED the one at the bottom; not the other way around.

On the other hand, this theory severely reduces the probability that if the junior level officers are messing around, then the boss is blissfully unaware of it. Duh, they're not that stupid.
And this totally screws the long-held advice that if you find an officer doing something corrupt then you should report it to his superior. Because you'll only be reporting to someone who's even more corrupt, and that'll only land you in trouble! SHIT!

So, I'd like to blow the whistle on the long-held assumptions about the top-down hierarchical power structure: This a system designed for the Gods, not for human beings. It doesn't make society clean and efficient as it claims. Rather, this pyramidal structure makes an environment conducive to corruption, red tape, misdirection, vested interests, ego, slowness, disrespect, exploitation... everything that it claimed it would keep out. Any normal person put into this system, has a much greater probability of doing the wrong things because that's what this system is DESIGNED to produce. The benefits it provides at the expense of morality then attracts only those people best suited to it.

So, when a news reporter talking on some newly dug-up scam exclaims "we all knew corruption was rife at the lower levels, but how could we have ever imagined that the rot extended all the way to the top!!"
--> Bazinga! It started FROM the top and THEN came down to where you could see it.

Taking this theory to its logical conclusion, here goes...
If you're finding corruption rampant at the bottom levels of government everywhere in your country,
then use the trickle-down theory and trace it up, up, up...

This leads to some unsolicited advice for anti-corruption movements everywhere: If you really want to do anything about corruption in the long run, keep in mind that even if you manage to wipe out every corrupt official, your most sincere efforts are useless as long as you don't destroy this top-down hierarchical structure which will quickly repopulate itself after the purge and bring forth corruption once again. It is this misguided philosophy of managing things, and not the people doing it, that is the real enemy. And if you're too scared to consider an alternative; if you prefer the security and comfort of control through power structures and fear the imagined chaos that you've been trained to think will come in the absence of these structures, if you have no faith in the power of people to truly govern themselves and sort their own problems without need of authority, then learn to live with corruption and all the evils it brings.

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