Corruption Among Nations


  • Kautilya’s “Arthashastra”
  • Corruption in Ancient Rome and Athens
  • Why corruption has become a serious problem nowadays?-arguments
  • Variations among nations

Definition of Corruption

The most wide-spread definition of corruption is the one formulated by the World Bank: the abuse of public power for private gain. Corruption is a complex phenomenon that encloses different types of unfair behavior and not always associated with bribes.

For instance, a public employee pretending to be sick goes on vacation thereby abusing his public position for personal benefit; or a president of a country who builds an airport in his small hometown is also engaged in corruption that doesn’t involve the payment of bribes.

Throughout history great thinkers and politicians have recognized corruption as a mysterious and complex phenomenon. The complexity of the problem is proved by the fact that corruption in various forms takes place in any sphere of activity; promotes illegality, injustice, waste, inefficiency in administrative conduct; destroys the moral fabric of society, ruins the faith of people in the legitimacy of politico-administrative set up.

Besides the fact that corruption encloses unethical business practices through the unfair way to gain advantage over particular good or service, it is a serious problem harming moral values of people. The payment of bribes, nepotism and other forms require lying and dissimilation. It is socially irresponsible, as it discriminates the rights of poor people who are unable to pay bribes for obtaining particular good or service.

Corruption has been recognized as a “general disease for the body politic” to be common as in modern, as in ancient times as well. Indeed, this deviant behavior provoked great concerns of such famous political thinkers as Kautilya, Aristotle, Cicero, Xenophon and others.

1.Corruption in Ancient Athens and Rome

Corruption in ancient world is first discovered in an archive listing the names of “employees accepting bribes” at the administrative centres of the ancient Assyrian empire 3400 years ago. In ancient Greece and Rome very often corrupt behavior was difficult to identify, as the same terms were applied to bribes and gifts (doron, lemma, chresmasi peithein).

According to Claire Taylor’s prominent work “Greece and Rome”, “every level of Athenian politics was riddled with corruption, from the most important orators to the smallest deme elections”.

Political Corruption

Both ancient Rome and Athens had large highly developed bureaucracies and at the same time with certain opportunities for abuse. Corruption has been considered to be one of the basic causes of the collapse of the Holy Roman Empire.

One of the most famous cases of corruption happened in the 1st cen. BC. The Roman governor of Sicily was prosecuted by Cicero for the acts of abuse of power. According to specific historical sources, he bought at first his praetorship and afterwards his governorship. His deviant behavior and misuse of power ruined Sicily, one of the richest provinces at that time that in turn caused Sicilians’ great frustration with the government and the formation of mafia. One of the plots of Verres’s abuse of power was to “name non-existent slaves”. He used to blame the landowners for hiding slaves suspected in rebellion organization. If the owner couldn’t produce the slave (whom he actually didn’t own), upon Verres’s order the accused was sent to prison and kept there until a bribe was paid for his release.

The factors contributing to corruption in ancient times were both of political and legal amateurism. According to the complaint of Plato, public officials are “ bribe-takers and money-lovers.” Despite the fact that the abuse of public power has been always considered a serious crime, the corrupt behaviour of public officials in ancient times may be explained not only on the basis of the love of money but as a professional necessity.

The temptation to make private gains was particularly caused by the fact that most magistrates, for instance, in ancient Greece after 411BC were not paid salaries for their service. The members of the Boule may have received small state income (mithos). Because of low-to-nonexistent payments politicians had to care about their considerable expences themselves. Politicians needed money for gathering information for being properly informed; entertain subordinates and pay bailiffs for running their farms while they worked for the state.

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It is therefore hardly surprising that some public officials accepted bribes and gifts for supplementing their income. However, the result of the misuse of power had a devastating effect on social order that therefore provoked great concern of many famous ancient orators and writers in ancient Rome and Greece.

In “Politics” Aristotle states that “a tyrant has no regard to public interest except of as conducive to his private ends’ of pleasure”. With regard to public officials, Aristotle considered them to have public duty and private interest is harmed when they use the office for their own “private ends”. The ideal form of government is the one that governs with the view of common interest.

Ancient Athenians were quite sensitive to the misuse of public resources and when detected, the act of corruption was punished severely.

In his “Laws” Plato states that corrupt officials were punished by the loss of citizenship and the right to take part in the political institutions of the city-state.

According to the Athenian orator Demosthenes (384-322 BC), a person who…

“… accepts a bribe from another or himself offers it to another, or corrupts anyone by promises, to the detriment of the people in general, or if any individual citizen, by any means or device, whatsoever, he shall be disfranchised together with his children, and his property will be confiscated.”

In fact, Demosthenes himself was found guilty of accepting bribes. In 324 BC he was fined 50 talents that equals $20 million in today’s dollars. He turned out to be comparatively lucky when he went into exile, while other Athenian officials were frequently severely executed for bribery.

According to the Law of the Twelve Tables that formed the centerpiece of the Roman Republic constitution, there was imposed a death penalty on the judges who accepted bribes. The punishment was eased after the rise of the Roman empire (27 BC–476 AD).

Electoral Corruption

As a paragon of civilization, Rome represented a major centre where corruption took place. Following the Greek historian Polybius (200-118 BC), “to the Romans nothing is more disgraceful than to receive bribes or to seek gain by improper means.” This estimation sounds quite optimistic, however in reality, compared to Athens, electoral bribery (ambitus) was a much more serious problem in ancient Rome. For instance, Julius Caesar won the office of Pontifex Maximus through bribery.

Electoral bribery turned into such a common event that it gave rise to the profession of bribe distributors called divisores. In this case, Cicero proposed the establishment of particular laws for electoral corruption prevention: limit the amount political elites could spend on gifts and entertainment aimed to influence election results.

Extortion and embezzlement

Reports on extortion in ancient history are very frequent. For instance, Marcus Aemilius Scaurus(163 BC – 89 BC) aRoman consul was accused of extortions while being a governor of Sardinia and Corsica.

Army was not the exception. The representative of the Sophist school Libanius (341-392 AD) in his speech proposed the emperor Theodosius to enforce laws against soldiers who used to extort money from the inhabitants of the colonies and then in turn applied the acquitted amount in military protection to oppress neighbours. In Luke 3 John the Baptist exhort the tax-collectors “to collect no more that is appointed to you”. With regard to Roman army, he instructs the soldiers “to be content with the wages” and give up extorting money from civilians by violence.

Bribe or gift?

“It was quite impossible to get anything done unless one produced a present. Politicians could be paid to do anything or nothing”.

Thycydides (460 – c. 395 BC)

Bribes performed a significant role in the everyday life both in ancient Rome and Athens. Bribes could decide the matters of war and peace, movement of armies, destruction and the fate of the whole nations as well.

There were even formed particular associations for extortion. The long-term consequences of bribery became particularly noticeable in the sixties and fifties BC. Bribery caused financial and correspondingly political instability; as well as loss of faith in constitution and rule of law. This outcome is considered to have contributed to the civil war.

The distinction between bribe and gift was quite unstable. In ancient Rome the notion of “gratia” meant the expression of gratitude. It represented particular gifts, donations and hospitality provided to a socially dominant person by a client. In ancient Greece the same role was attributed to gift called “dora” that at the same time meant bribe. The term “dorokein” meant receiving bribes, while “dorokia” stood for political corruption.

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If there was made no distinction between gifts and bribes, it therefore points to the estimation that the provision of bribes was a part of social behavior and expression of solidarity and gratitude.

2. Kautilya’s Arthashastra

The temptation to make private gains has always existed and unfortunately can’t be totally eliminated. However, the level of corruption can be monitored with particular anti-corrupt tools that may sometimes move economy closer to the level of complete transparency.

Corruption should be examined first of all as an essential feature of a changeable human nature.

“Men are naturally fickle minded and are compared to horses who exhibit constant change in their temper”.

Kautilya (370-283 BC)

One of the most prominent political figures of ancient times, the professor of economics and political sciences at the ancient Takshashila University and the royal advisor, Kautilya (Chanakya or Vishnu Gupta), also examined corruption as a major threat to economics and social order. Kautilya played a significant role in the establishment of the Maurya Empire, the first empire in the archeologically recorded history for the ruling of the most Indian subcontinent. Being a chief advisor to both Chandragupta (340-298 BC) and Bindusara (320-272 BC), he dealt with the issues on politics, social order, diplomacy, war and ethics. The widespread character of corruption at various levels of the Kingdom’s administration prompted Kautilya to establish an elaborated statecraft “Arthashastra” that describes what a state ought to be and not what it really was. One should agree that the norms of how to handle the problem are prescribed when particular disorder and abnormalities exist.”Arthashastra”, being considered as an elaborated statecraft that discusses monetary and fiscal policies, the art of international relations and war strategies, encloses valuable advice on how to handle and fight against corruption.

According to Kautilya, honesty is not the virtue that would remain consistent lifelong and the temptation to make easy gains through corrupt means can override the trait of honesty any time.

The identification of corruption with the notion of temptation is clearly proved by the comparison of the revenue collection process (by officials) with the honey or poison on the tip of the tongue that is impossible not to taste.

As nowadays, as in ancient times corruption is so obvious and yet so mysterious. Kautilya expressed great concern on the difficulty of the detection of corruption. He compared embezzlers to fish moving under water and the impossibility to detect when exactly the fish was drinking water.

Corruption in public sector and the tools to fight against it

Kautilya stated that the increase in expenditures and lower revenue is an indicator of embezzlement and extortion in the government. Being an ancient statecraft, “Arthashastra” represents elaborated guidelines that may be applied in dealing with corruption even nowadays.

Kautilya considered corruption, first of all, as a phenomenon deriving from a changeable human nature. On the basis of this assessment, the process of fighting against corruption must begin from the employee recruitment level.

Employee recruitment

In Mauryan Empire (322-185BC) “superintendents” were the highest officials, who received their position on the basis of “ministerial qualifications”, as well as “individual capacity”. Educational background, work experience and particular skills gave particular advantage to a candidate during the selection process. However, no less attention was paid to the right kind of aptitude for the position: traits of honesty and the level of impartiality. Despite such thorough selection process, corrupt persons still made their way into the system; however, other efficient tools were applied for the detection and prevention of corruption.

Relations among co-workers

Kautilya considered efficient team work to be the key for success. There were, however, particular impediments, like too much personal interactions among the higher executives, and co-workers that led to compromise and consequently corruption. Kautilya explained that human emotions and personal concerns impeded the successful running of an administration that is, first of all, a rule-based impersonal affair. Besides, different vision of particular issues also harmed the team spirit. Kautilya suggested stimulation of professionalism at work: superintendents must execute work with the employees following subordination system. Kautilya was certain that such model would stimulate the sense of belonging of employees to particular department, clearly identify their rights and obligations and therefore contribute to success of the state.

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Work period shortening

Another measure for corruption prevention was the suggestion to make several positions in each department temporary. Periodic transfer of government officials from one position to another was implemented with the intention of not giving enough time for the officials to pick holes in the system and misuse their advantages.

Whistleblowers’ contribution

Whistle blowing has remained one of the most efficient tools in corruption detection process. Kautilya made particular emphasis on the importance of informants’ (suchaka) activity for exposing embezzlement or some deviant behavior. If the whistleblower was a government servant, he was given one twelfth of the bribe or the extorted amount. While, if the informant was from outside the system, he was entitled the award of one-sixth of the amount. The latter’s share was more, as the detection of corruption while being outside the system was rather more challenging.

Corruption Nowadays

The “Arthashstra” of Kautilya convincingly confirms the fact that corruption is not the exclusive feature of contemporary world. It represents a piece of prehistoric heritage that has survived through centuries. Governments of all historical eras have recognized the devastating effect of this phenomenon on the political system, security and social order. Globalization has stimulated the spread of corruption all over the globe. As a result, nowadays corruption is a world-scale problem that in return is recognized as a major threat to internationals security. However, before discussing the central point of the research, it is necessary to understand why corruption is paid so much attention now? Is it because there was more corruption in the past than in the present? Is it because more attention is paid to the phenomenon that has existed for ages but has been partially or completely ignored? The answer is still not obvious; however there are several arguments that describe why corruption is attracting more attention now than in the past.

First, the end of the Cold War stopped the political hypocrisy giving the opportunity to many decision makers in industrial countries to ignore political corruption, e.g. Zaire.

Second, the lack of information and the ignorance of the abuse of power didn’t give the possibility for corruption detection in centrally-planned economy. It is now widely known that the central planned economies, such as the USSR or those imitating them experienced high rate of political corruption. However, the cases of deviant behavior and the abuse of public power was either ignored or not properly reported.

Third, the emergence of new democratic governments in recent years, as well as free and active media have contributed to the creation of a new environment where discussion of corruption is no longer forbidden.

Forth, the process of globalization has stimulated closer and frequent contacts between individuals from different countries: those from the countries with the high rate of transparency with those from the countries where corruption widespread. These contacts have increased the attention towards corruption.

Fifth, the emergences of nongovernmental organizations, such as Transparency International, as well as a growing interest in the problem from the side of other international organizations have contributed to the anti-corrupt movements in many countries. Besides, numerous empirical studies have contributed to greater awareness of the problem.

Sixth, market economy has created an environment where the pursuit of efficiency has become much more important and distortions caused by corruption attract more attention.

Finally, the influence of the US in many international institutions has been very important. American policy makers have stated that American exporters have lost out in foreign trade due to the prohibition to pay bribes to foreign trade partners. For American officials, the payment of bribes is a criminal act and bribes can’t be deducted as cost for tax purposes. The case of OECD was quite different from the US’s model of behavior. However, under the sponsorship of the OECD situation has noticeably changed.

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