Power and Corruption Good for Society?

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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:

Greasy palms index

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."   

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  1. Whoopee, all it says is that corruption is part of the payment, a fringe benefit of the job. That’s like when Leonard Liggio explained that the police in Vietnam — when things were good and they kept beheading communists — were financed entirely by the prostitution and gambling rackets.

  2. I’m glad that bribery and police brutality are what keeps society together.

    1. in fact, I could use another dose of some jackboot thugs crashing through some family’s door searching for drugs and shooting their Corgi in front of the kids… then finding out they got the wrong house.

  3. The problem with these studies is they pick a behavior model for “cooperation” that is invalid.

    For example, usually they involve awarding you as the player game tokens, and telling you that you can either keep them all or give some to another player. Giving some away is called “cooperation”.

    Wow, color me surprised that there’s more of that kind of “cooperation” when law enforcement is allowed to be lawless itself. Gee, what kind of real-world examples of that can we find…hmmmm….

    1. A model where cooperation benefited all the cooperating parties would be more accurate, right?

    2. Good observation.

      A better model would be a game where players can pool their tokens together, with each gaining some number of tokens per turn while they do this…but also with the possibility that players can steal tokens from a player who’s pooling with them. That comes closer to the classic “prisoner’s dilemma” example of cooperation.

      1. Or a model where, say, tokens were exchanged among the participants for other things of value.

        Because when the tokens are used for anything but that, you know what’s actually being measured?

        The difficulty of getting people to submit to confiscatory redistribution schemes.

        And, yeah, it doesn’t surprise me that it both takes terror (as in Stalin, not as in bin Laden) to get people to cooperate that way (“…People tend to cooperate because they do not want to get punished…”) and that it’s easier for that system of terror to work if law enforcement has the privilege to exempt itself from it.

        Wow. What a discovery. They just learned how every dictatorship in history functioned. Good thing they used game theory to prove it, instead of just opening a history book.

        1. The problem with these studies is they pick a behavior model for “cooperation” that is invalid.

          Given its human nature we’re talking about, “The problem with these studies is they pick a behavior model…” describes the problem without needing to finish the sentence.

  4. “without power and corruption, law enforcers have less incentive to do their job.”

    This would imply that every manager should be corrupt to some degree.

    1. Yeah, I thought discouraging corruption and abuse of power was the point of paying public servants high salaries and giving them good job security (so long as they’re not caught taking bribes or abusing power).

      1. Well, yeah, that is the point. So look at it the other way: if you let them be more corrupt, you can pay them less.

  5. 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.

    Bullshit. Pure, unadulterated, organic bullshit. See the circular thinking in their statement?

    People cooperate because they feel they are not above the law, thanks to law enforcement, and law enforcement cooperates because they know they can be above the law…

    So who writes the laws, and what for?

    1. So who writes the laws, and what for?

      1. Congress
      2. Their own benefit, or that of their campaign donors.

      Duh. More coffee for you OM, STAT!

  6. 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.

    Here’s how I would interpret the above statement (and, presumably, the entire study): police have to have power to keep order, and a small amount of professional courtesy reinforces the idea that the police are in control, thereby allowing them to keep order. However, when power and corruption becomes overbearing then it’s counterproductive to a cooperating society because the police then become perceived as the bad guys.

    That actually makes a lot of sense to me. I understand that if a cop pulls somebody over for speeding and it turns out the speeder is an off-duty cop, he’ll probably let him go. I would suspect that most professions have some kind of professional courtesy. However, there’s a difference between giving a speeder a break and giving a drunk driver a break, and therein lies the rub. And the map doesn’t really refute this premise because it shows HIGH levels of corruption don’t facilitate cooperation, which is consistent with the above-quoted paragraph.

    1. And just to qualify my above statement, I’m not saying I think cops SHOULD extend professional courtesy to other cops. I’m just saying that the study seems to distinguish between “petty” corrupution (for lack of a better word) and significant violations of indivduals’ rights.

    2. It shows that you want to live in one of the orange countries if you can afford to bribe officials to either expedite a bureaucratic process or look the other way.

    3. Professional courtesy is necessary because of bad law. Cops feel perfectly justified letting a fellow cop off, because people are punished for doing something like speeding, which harms no one. If the situation was instead a fellow cop who ran over a kid, the enforcing cop wouldn’t let him run off. At least not and be able to call it professional courtesy.

      1. You don’t read Balko’s articles much do you.

      2. Law enforcement is not a profession. You can not call something truly a profession when it is dependent on feeding at the public trough for sustenance. Professional courtesy, so called, applies to actual professions. You can not call exempting certain individuals from the laws of the land to which everyone else is subjected professional courtesy.

  7. Greenland is so corrupt the researchers couldn’t even take any data there? Now THAT’S corrupt!

    1. North Korea is also gray on the map. Anybody want to guess without data which color they truly are?

  8. I can see this being the case. If you get pulled over for speeding, wouldn’t it be better to give the cop the ticket price rather than spend $50+ in court fees, have to pay off the ticket anyways and then get screwed by insurance?

    1. No, not really. Because while sounding great in theory, this simply opens the door for more corruption. Seen it in action, while stationed in Panama – if you were pulled over by the cops, it would devolve into what was euphemistically termed ‘un oportunidad’ – basically a modest bribe to be allowed to go your way without paperwork. $10 bucks usually did the trick. The result was notoriously capricious ‘law enforcement’ with cops pulling people over with abandon during the holidays, or towards the end of their regular pay periods. Or just fucking with you if you failed to sufficiently kiss their asses and respect the authoriteh. The randomness was particularly annoying.

      1. Two Belgians cross the D.R. Congo (“Zaire”, not the other Congo) in a Landrover. If you want to see how staggering corruption can be, read this.

        This is a pretty interesting travelogue, but it’s also long. I suggest only reading the posts by the author(s) – “RadioBaobab”

        1. that is pretty sweet, thanks for the linky baked.

          1. You’re welcome.

            Even if I prefer pancakes.

        2. Wow, four hours later. That is one HELL of a tale. Thanks Baked.

      2. My own experience in Panama has been different. I will HAPPILY pay a bribe to avoid a $134 speeding ticket. Unlike you, I haven’t found the cops to be over zealous, even when their paychecks are about to run out. To wit, in all of my time there, I’ve averaged about one bribe per month, and ALL of them have been legit (I was speeding).

        All things considered (like the low cost of living), I’ll take Panama over the US every day of the year.

        Oh, and if you’re a Gringo, the cost of a bribe for speeding is up to $20.

        1. My experience is a bit dated. In the mid-90’s 10 would do. Sometimes could get away with 5 with some pleading.

          1. Inflation. What can ya do ?

      3. Presumably it eventually hits an equilibrium price.

        Also presumably the model would work for corruption & cooperation within organiz’ns such as businesses.

  9. “[…]Corruption is a problem, but the main problem is the size of their [developing countries’] governments.”

    Right on.

    1. Yep, the last paragraph is the crux of it all.

  10. I take it this study doesn’t include lobbying, gerrymandering, kickbacks for political contributions, revolving-door jobs, and the like as “corruption”.

  11. law enforcers … are compensated for their law enforcing by being able to dodge the law

    Hey, what about us?

  12. This is ridiculous on its face. In the real world, anyway.

  13. So the only yellowish countries are one of the following:

    (a) in Western Europe,
    (b) majority-white English-speaking,
    (c) Japan, Uruguay, or Chile.

    Hmmmmm…..

    1. It’s also funny to see that Italy is the only red country in western Europe. Stereotypes are based on truth, man!

      1. Our dictatorships are not corrupt. We are peaceful earth lovers. Only Western European and Anglo capitalistic states are corrupt. Every school child knows that. Keep repeating that, it makes it true.

  14. Oh, come on now, corruption is democracy in action.

  15. But the size of the government increased because of the corruption. Bauer has the chicken and egg exactly backwards.

  16. without power and corruption, law enforcers have less incentive to do their job.

    I call bullshit. The power and corruption cause law enforcement to NOT do their jobs.

    A fairly compensated police force with virtually no undue power or corruption is better than any degree of undue power or corruption.

  17. I think the real lesson here shouldn’t be that power and corruption, in moderation, are necessary for a cooperative society.

    We see that cooperation and power/corruption coexist.

    We have examples of societies with high levels of power/corruption where cooperation is damaged.

    Do we have any examples of societies with low levels of power/corruption where cooperation is damaged? No?*

    Then why isn’t the obvious conclusion that Ia cooperative society can withstand only so much power and corruption?

    *Somalia and other quasi-anarchic warlord societies don’t count. They are rife with power and corruption.

  18. Any system needs a little “grease” to lubricate the wheels of progress – it is a result of natural human greed. Without it, the system of concern will tend towards atrophy. The key is to keep it within a least upper bound beyond which chaos results.

  19. A significant part of our motivations comes from our developed moral compass (i.e. beyond punishment and reward) and would probably change the outcome of the study if they could be included.

    I also claim that including a more developed moral compass would certainly decrease the “optimal” amount of corruption, because people would tend to conform to societal rules without fear of enforcement or expecting anything in return.

    If so, then the authors’ argument might be incomplete – and may even be used to incorrectly justify corruption if the conclusions are blown out of proportion. This study is probably a step forward in our quantitative understanding of human societies, but it should be interpreted as very minimalist and far from being a complete, or even adequate description of human society.

    I also think that societies might have to evolve through self-interest-based systems and achieve a certain standard of living before citizens develop the concepts of social norms and ethics, so the model might be less applicable in more developed countries.

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