Friday, March 16, 2012

On Corruption, part I

Corruption is simply to seek an "unfair" advantage over others.

To seek an advantage over others is such an intrinsic part of life that an individual or a species which fails to do so, dies. Resources may not be scarce now, and therefore seeking an advantage may not be essential at present. But the necessity of seeking advantage for future battles for resources still exists.

Altruism is always limited. Unlimited altruism is death. Beyond that limit at which altruism stops, the seeking of advantage and superiority must reign.

Seeking an "unfair" advantage is punished, at least theoretically, both in the animal kingdom and in humanity. But "unfair" in the eyes of others generally co-exists with the attempt to "push one's luck" in one's own eyes.

Enterprise, entrepreneurship, risk-taking, being aggressive and ambitious, seeking a better life than others, waging a violent or non-violent war for resources (those resources may be television TRPs, or the love of a choosy woman) is inherent in the game of survival.

When does an enterprising individual become a "corrupt" individual? When does seeking an advantage pass into the domain of seeking an "unfair" advantage?

Is using a celebrity in one's advertising a form of seeking an unfair advantage over one's competitors? Is modern advertising a form of corruption?

Is sending flowers and an expensive piece of jewelry to a girl, because you can afford them, an "unfair" advantage over another suitor?

Is hiding your failures on your resume, and glorifying your successes, a form of corruption?

Is withholding information, and being diplomatic with one's words, a form of holding an advantage over one's conversational partner? When does it become "unfair"?

The difference between a "fair" advantage and an "unfair" advantage is therefore a very important one. Someone who has the power to define this difference, via media, legislation and appeal to tradition or morality, is therefore very powerful.

Unfair advantages will be punished by law, by violent public approbation, and so on. Fair advantages will just be submissively tolerated. The former will arouse real consequences (prison, fines, violence), the latter may just result in resentment, jealousy and envy.

So what separates a "fair" advantage from an "unfair" one? This is not an easy question. Assuming for the moment that following the law is "fair" and everything else "unfair", is the legislative process itself "fair"? Isn't lobbying, rhetoric, appeal to sentiment, a part of the legislative process? In short, are the laws themselves "fair" to begin with?

The laws that we follow definitely affect the animal kingdom and the environment; were their interests considered? Aren't humans always seeking an "unfair" advantage over other species and the environment?

More specifically, are the immigration laws and economic policies of a country fair to other, poorer, countries?

Something being fair or not is therefore not a simple question, but requires extensive analysis of what "fairness" means. We might say we want to treat people equally in the eye of the law, or give them equal opportunity, but that is all nonsense. Inequality exists at every moment of our lives. Nobody is equal to anybody else. There are innate advantages and disadvantages that one possesses over others, and no system can make two people two instances of swappable CPUs in a computer.

"Do what you say", "fulfill your duty", "don't lie" all these are exhortations which assume a framework which is sensible to begin with.

Some responses might be:

"Why should I do what I say when I said something just to please someone who was otherwise a threat and was going to fly off his handle whereas now he is no longer a threat?"

"I don't agree that this is my duty to die for my country when the war itself is unjust."

"When the price for speaking the truth, say whether I believe in God or not, is unbearable to me, I have a right to want to evade that heavy cost."

"When I regard the immigration law of USA as unfair, I believe I have a moral, ifnot legal, right to lie on my visa application and to submit false documents."


The only way to make an act or a decision undisputed (whether it is fair/allowed/just or not) is to formalize it in such a way that a machine can adjudicate on it. Then, and only then, there is no dispute and allegation of corruption.

A machine can never be corrupt, because it does not seek an advantage. Hence, most anti-corruption crusades seek to mechanize and formalize human and business interactions. Discretion is inevitably going to lead to allegations of corruption.

As long as train reservations were at the mercy of a human, there was corruption. When the process was handed over to computers, corruption dramatically went away.

When house allotments were at the discretion of a public body and its officials, there was corruption. When there was a computerized auction, corruption became impossible.

When tax reporting and calculation was discretionary, there was corruption. When automated flow of information regarding financial transactions became prevalent, corruption went away (to that extent).

From relatively trivial phenomena like restaurant reservations, movie tickets, to weightier issues like land acquisition, IPOs, communication spectrum pricing, the more the process is process-mapped and translated to an algorithm, the less corruption there is going to be.

A law-abiding land ultimately has to become a land which follows algorithms and formal rules of engagement in most spheres of life. In which people, if they disagree with someone, are tied down and allowed to point fingers, but not raise their hand.

And therefore, a law-abiding land gives great power to its legislature and its state machinery, which decides on the laws and punishes the violators. If the legislature is corrupt, and the laws unjust, and the enforcement discretionary, should we ask for less corruption (i.e. more following of the laws), or should we ask for something else? What is that "something else"?

You may say you want less corruption in India, but have you pondered over the consequences?

(to be continued)

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