Tuesday May 17, 2022

Let the system work

November 18, 2017
“Pakistan is a corrupt society and politicians are the most corrupt breed.” Most people would agree with this proposition even though almost no one would admit that they themselves are drawn towards corruption.
In the past, governments were dismissed on the charges of corruption. At present, the erstwhile ruling family is in the dock for allegedly amassing ill-gotten wealth. Likewise, a popular leader, who has made anti-graft campaigns the bedrock of his politics, is awaiting the apex court’s judgment for allegedly covering up his assets.
Is rampant corruption in society merely a perception without much correspondence to the reality? Is the issue of corruption blown out of proportion? Are the stories of massive corruption by politicians no more than an old wives’ tale? Are the accounts of loot and plunder and of the misuse and abuse of power largely a convenient stick to beat the high and mighty with?
However we may choose to answer this question, it can’t be disputed that corruption is a complex issue, with socio-cultural, economic, political, and institutional dimensions. George Bernard Shaw once remarked in a lighter vein that before teaching our children that honesty is the best policy, we must see whether honest behaviour actually pays off. What he probably meant was that if the social structure supported corruption, the problem would be difficult to stamp out. Unfortunately, our social structure supports corruption.
While textbooks and folklore enthrone spiritualism, look down upon the appetite for all things worldly and all desires that are carnal and teach contempt for crass materialism, society in practice, by and large, puts a high premium on money for the goods that it can buy. A cleric who, in his sermons, eloquently preaches the virtues of honesty will prefer to attend the prayers for the departed soul of a wealthy person rather than perform the last rites of a pauper. An investigative reporter who has a knack for lifting

the lid off mega corruption scams will not hesitate to use his influence to win favour for his scions or siblings. A politician whose fiery speeches embody deadly attacks on graft will use his position to close a lucrative contract for his family or friends.
This is hardly surprising. An individual often faces a conflict between his obligations to society and those that he owes to his immediate family and close friends. Should a government official who draws upon a meagre salary discharge his duty honestly and, in that course, let his children live from hand to mouth or let his parents suffer or die for want of some essential but costly medicines? Or, should he put his family’s health and happiness before the public good and resort to minting money? Who is a good person: a person who cares for his friends and family or someone who neglects them for whatever reason?
“Forget the family and maintain personal integrity at all cost”. That will be the typical answer. But it is easier said than done in a society where family ties are still quite strong and where one person is normally the sole breadwinner for a large family.
This brings us to the political economy of corruption. Corruption is, in essence, a form of rent-seeking. Just as firms in a monopolistic or oligopolistic market abuse their position to charge an exorbitant price from consumers, government officials may misuse their discretionary powers and any confidential information that is available to them. All else equal, the greater the discretionary power and less the transparency, the higher is the tendency to indulge in corruption.
For the client, bribing the official is a lesser evil than having his case turned down or getting his file stuck in the system that works at a snail’s pace. Apparently, it’s a win-win situation for both the client and the official – although other stakeholders, such as the state or the public, may end up as losers. If a company can get away with tax evasion worth millions by putting a few thousand bucks into the pocket of some officials, it’s not a big deal for it. Instead, it’s rational behaviour in an economic sense.
Remember, economics is the science of opportunity costs. At times, the opportunity cost of not indulging in corruption may be the liquidation of the business.
In an underdeveloped economy, such as Pakistan, the opportunities for rent-seeking are greater than those in a developed country. Such economies are, by and large, characterised by a mismatch of low salaries and considerable discretionary powers. Just compare the powers and the salary package of a patwari and a high official. This makes payoffs both an attractive and a convenient option. Endemic poverty, institutional immaturity and a short supply of essential services combine to encourage corrupt, illegal behaviour.
Corruption is also linked to the political system. However, there is no causal link between corruption and a particular form of government. A democratic political system may be a breeding ground of corruption and an authoritarian political system may constitute a strong deterrence against graft.
Both China and Singapore are authoritarian states. Both countries have a much lower level of corruption as compared with India – the world’s largest democracy.
Pakistan has seen both democratic and autocratic forms of government. The general impression is that democratic governments have been more corrupt than dictatorial regimes. This impression may have much to do with the greater freedom of expression and transparency obtained in a democracy than under another arrangement.
Having said that, whether we have a democracy or a dictatorship, the underlying political culture has been the same. It is the culture of power and patronage, doling out jobs, contracts and public resources, gaining kickbacks and commissions and a lack of respect for the law and institutions. For those who are in power, containing corruption is not a priority. Instead, at times it’s the other way round. Corruption is widely viewed as – and turns out to be – a rational choice.
Every military regime starts with the promises of across-the-board accountability. But it is not long before it dawns upon the junta facing a legitimacy crisis that it needs political support. The result is that in the interest of survival, the regime is forced to embrace the same ‘corrupt’ politicians. Those facing charges of massive corruption are inducted as ministers. For the regime, it’s once again a matter of rational behavior. What would it get by casting some corrupt politicians behind bars?
Again, we come across the conflict between alternative positions. Do we need a popular government or a cleaner government? Benazir Bhutto was one of the most popular leaders of Pakistan. But she was sacked twice for corruption.
How do we see the National Reconciliation Ordinance? It paved the way for the return of democracy. At the same time, the ordinance legitimised political corruption. Both Farooq Leghari and Ghulam Ishaq Khan were known as ‘Mr Clean’. However, each of them conspired against popularly-elected governments while they were in power. Ask who the country’s most corrupt politician is. The answer in nine out of 10 cases will be Asif Zardari. But the same Zardari is credited with having steered the ship of democracy in troubled waters.
To be sure, we are not going to have a revolutionary leader who will set things right in one go and make the country corruption-free. We need to let the system, with all its shortcomings and flaws, work. Hopefully, as democracy takes root, institutions mature and the economy marches ahead on the road to development, things will improve. There’s no shortcut to containing corruption.
The writer is a freelance countributor.