Monday, February 21, 2011

Impact versus morality

To Rahul and Neelima, thanks for raising a key point in your comments to my previous posting Ruining the land and thereby provoking this new posting.

The question essentially was: "is it as bad to give Rs 20 to a cop for `chai-paani' (a bribe) as to loot crores of rupees?" Indeed the two are not comparable in their impact on the nation. But if you're talking of impact, consider a different comparison. Economics not being a conservative system (in the physics sense) it is possible hypothetically for a person/government to loot crores and still deliver more to the country in terms of real benefits (health, employment, infrastructure, stable economy) than someone else who is scrupulously honest but -- out of either incompetence or apathy -- fails to carry out any development, thereby condemning the poor to a short and miserable life. So if the impact of corruption, rather than absolute morality, is the question, some of the crore-makers might have a defense. The question would become not: "did you loot crores?" but: "did you loot crores and still fail to deliver?". If you think about it, much of the buzz about the Commonwealth Games had this tone to it, since the organisers were perceived to be guilty of precisely the latter sin.

I'm deeply uncomfortable with such a morally relativist view, but I put it forward because it deserves discussion and because the poor have good reason to be less uncomfortable about it. In fact the upper and even middle class have the luxury to say "no corruption, even if that means no development" because that proportionately hurts them less than the most vulnerable sections.

If instead the discussion is about morality, then the monetary extent or impact of one's corruption does not matter so much. The question to determine the degree of corruption would now be on the lines of "if you are corrupt, did you actively seek to become so or did you merely give in to the opportunities for corruption available to you?". And here I believe most people actually do not seek to be corrupt, but at the same time most people who find themselves in a corrupt society tend to participate in the game without much reflection on rights and wrongs. A frighteningly large proportion of people I know (including young people) feel it's OK to fudge a travel claim or medical claim and pocket a few hundreds of rupees in cash. If the same people are put into a ministry, would they not pocket a few crores using the same philosophy?


Sayan said...

"Every country has the government it deserves." - Joseph de Maistre

Often I find it amusing to note the middle class self-righteous indignation at politics.

Anirbit said...

I am not sure this is very relevant but just thought of sharing an experience. When I was trying to get my passport renewed in Mumbai, everyone "advised" me that either I should use an agent or I be ready to pay bribes at every stage.

I wonder why but at no stage of the process was I asked for a bribe though I had to do enormous amount of running around across Mumbai for about 3 months to get things done. I didn't use an agent either.

{I had to struggle at unexpected steps like with the notary public about my mother's name should feature in the affidavit. Eventually I typed out my own documents and got them notarized!}

Somehow I have never been asked for a bribe. (unless I count the caterers on the train who ask for tips)

But the larger question does remain that to live in India comfortably one has to compromise on one's ethics almost totally. It would have been better if it were only about money, it is almost always about being forced to choose between social rejection and self-infliction of a moral massacre. I have steadfastly chosen never to take the second option though given the saturation levels I have hit I don't think I will be able to do so anymore unless I radically change my environment. Precisely why mere legal actions against the culprits though necessary can hardly hope to uproot this evil. (There is guaranteed to be another Raja even though this one is in Tihar)

Might be a weak analogy but still, all universities have anti-cheating laws and they are effected if one is caught but there is adoption of corrupt means in every exam by almost every student in every institute I know of in India.

I have extensively thought about this issue since I have to regularly face these deeper non-monetary forms of corruption. What makes ethics as a subject very dear to me and most important to me. I hope to write more on this later this year.

The crucial issue remains that ethics is so fundamental a sense of rationality that hardly one should hope to assign it a cost and weigh it against anything else.

To use a famous example by one of the greatest thinkers on ethics in modern times, Peter Singer that one would jump in to save a drowning child even if that means ruining the newly bought expensive shoes.

I end with a link to a recent article on similar issues by a colleague of mine from my undergrad (and the discussions with him in the comments sections)

sandip said...

I guess I was trying to rationalize stuff around me then, but I think we identify the fundamentals similarly :-) :

However, in the current Indian context, the story is about land and satellite communication-technologies that will shape future human society; if this were a fight to occupy the Indian market, then the real payback is political power and not money?

Unknown said...

I think you have to make a distinction between a bribe which is a super-tip and what the politicians are doing, which is thievery. And thievery on a scale which beggars the imagination. Let's not forget that what the Pawars and Kalmadis and Rajas take comes, ultimately, from the pockets of the poor, and represents food taken from their mouths and clothing taken off their backs - while the bribe you give the traffic cop helps him, perhaps, put more or better food on his table.

I don't think the corrupt system we presently see came because young people found it acceptable to cheat on expense reports and then, when more senior, cheated in larger ways. The entire system has been hijacked at the top by bandits, whose only morality is self-gain and whose only aim is to take more and yet more. We not only allowed these criminals to gain power but rewarded them with both high office and adulation.

That's what really, really needs to be addressed: cleansing the system of these modern-day dakoos and recovering the loot. Alas, the present regime is not up to it. They're right there as part of the problem; not any portion of the solution.

Sunil Mukhi said...

@Cheeta: Black money is also money stolen from the poor. Shouldn't we consistently despise anyone who indulges in that, the way we despise the "bandits" in politics?

It worries me, the extent to which black money is considered part of normal life (at worst, a "necessary evil"). India has very reasonable taxation rates so I don't see any valid excuse for evading tax. Yet we do it at all levels. When our doctor takes cash, we KNOW what it means -- but we never say anything.

Just to make a precise statement here: in my opinion Manmohan Singh is not as much a part of the problem as a few hundred thousand businessmen in Bombay who are busy concealing their income by the sackful - the bandits!

Unknown said...

@Sunil: One must agree.

Growing up, I well remember the number of times my parents (and yours!) would insist on a bill for what they were paying for, and the advice they would often give to those who tried to get them to participate in tax evasion: do the right thing; pay your taxes!

I also remember the care which people took to hide the fact that they were tax evaders. Not just because of the possible penalties from the income tax department but because of the social opprobrium which would follow.

Would that we would function to the same standards!

But there are bandits, and there are bandits. I may shut my eyes and still shake the hand of the petty trader or lawyer or doctor who prefers cash for his services; but surely the super-bandits, businessmen as well as politicians, can no longer be allowed to flaunt their actions and live in society's regard.

But how will that change happen?

Ungrateful Alive said...

My BS alarm went off here: "give in to the opportunities for corruption available to you".

It all depends on what you define as one's entitlement in various societies. Let's take some European nation as reference. Everyone has a right to a birth certificate and a passport. Now transfer that to an Indian middle class person. They (think they) have these rights. Now some clerk gets in the way and asks for Chai-Pani. They pay off and get their entitlement. It is rather brutal to call this "giving in to the opportunities for corruption", because the middle-class person was entitled to those documents anyway!

If the above is corruption, so is paying ransom to get one's child back from kidnappers. (Note I am not saying it isn't. Just clarifying the issue.)

In said European nation no government clerk or officer imagines asking for Capuccino-Carlsberg to prepare such a document. But their counterparts in India do. Squeezing these Indian guys past the morality bar seems much harder, because from our reference point, they are not entitled to Chai-Pani.

This might explain why the middle class gets very angry when corruption is symmetrized (as you attempted).

(Your other example of making money by padding travel allowance etc. is well taken.)

Unknown said...

Have just learned that there is a website at which one can actually report bribes one has paid (or been asked to pay):

I Paid A Bribe.

One can do it anonymously, so it's not a site for confessing one's sins. More for whistle-blowing, one would guess.

Anyone ready to try it?