New research published in the journal Evolution by University of Tennesse biologist Francisco Úbeda and Harvard University biologist Edgar Duéñez finds that a bit of corruption actually increases cooperation in a society. ScienceDaily reports:
Using game theory, Úbeda and Duéñez looked at what causes individuals in society to cooperate even though those in charge display some level of corruption. They developed a model that allows individuals who are responsible for punishing noncooperators (e.g., law enforcers and government officials) to fail to cooperate themselves by acting in a corrupt manner. They also considered the possibility that these law enforcers, by virtue of their positions, are able to sidestep punishment when they are caught failing to cooperate.
What they found is that the bulk of society cooperates because there are law enforcers forcing them to stay in line. People tend to cooperate because they do not want to get punished.
Even if the law enforcers consider themselves above the law and behave in a corrupt way, overall societal cooperation is maintained—as long as there is a small amount of power and corruption. However, if the law enforcers have too much power and corruption runs rampant, overall societal cooperation breaks down.
Úbeda explained how it works: "Law enforcers often enjoy privileges that allow them to avoid the full force of the law when they breach it. Law enforcing results in the general public abiding by the law. Thus law enforcers enjoy the benefits of a lawful society and are compensated for their law enforcing by being able to dodge the law," he said.
The researchers concluded that power and corruption benefit society; without law enforcers, individuals have less incentive to cooperate and without power and corruption, law enforcers have less incentive to do their job.
Interesting, but when one looks at Transparency International's corruption perception index one finds a pretty strong correlation between countries with low levels of corruption and high levels of cooperation (as indicated by higher average per capita incomes). See map below:
Some years ago, at a conference on international development, I suggested to the great economist Peter Bauer (must read: Reality and Rhetoric: Studies in the Economics of Development) that pervasive corruption was one of the chief reasons that so many developing countries remained mired in poverty. Bauer sighed and leaned on the lectern and said something like: "No, that's not quite right. The United States and Britain when they were developing economically were as corrupt as many developing countries are today. The difference is that when the U.S. and Britain were developing, the size of their governments was small. The governments controlled a very small percentage of their GDPs. Today, the governments in most developing countries are very big relative to the size of their economies, often controlling more than half of their GDPs. Corruption is a problem, but the main problem is the size of their governments."