Recent weeks, if not months, have seen arrests of ministers, civil servants and executives of well-known firms in corruption cases. There is a growing chorus against this situation that looks nearly impossible to check.
The outcome has been disappointing so far. This is due to one simple reason: Most arguments on corruption are couched in moral terms.
In reality, corruption, like many other aspects of daily life, is amenable to incentives. Once these are modified, the chances of controlling it improve dramatically. But efforts to use this approach often get derailed. One example is the suggestion of chief economic adviser Kaushik Basu to tweak the anti-corruption law to check bribery. His suggestion is simple.
In India, both bribe-giving and bribe-taking are unlawful and subject to punishment. Basu, in a paper meant to sound out ideas, suggested that the law be amended to make bribe-giving legal in certain circumstances, and to allow bribe givers to recoup the money by reporting bribe takers. In any real life situation, that would break the bribery equation by giving incentives to persons who pay bribes to report—“whistle”—against bribe takers. In fact the chances of prosecuting corrupt officials can improve greatly in the changed circumstances. This is because those who bribe can be expected to keep some record of the illegal transaction, making it much easier for law enforcers to get crucial evidence for a trial. Today, most corruption cases fall because investigators are hardly able to present worthwhile evidence in a court. Once bribe-giving is made legal, cooperation from those who have to pay bribes will be much more forthcoming. Basu restricts this legalization to what he terms “harassment bribes” where citizens have to shell out money for services that are due to them. This does not include the high profile cases in recent months where government functionaries dished out high-value contracts in return for bribes.
Yet such is the stranglehold of moralistic thinking on important legal and policy issues that this interesting suggestion, which is worth considering, has met with considerable opposition. In recent days, political leaders and policy advisers alike have condemned it, terming it as destructive of the moral order. The claim here is that once bribe-giving is made legal, resistance to bribery will disappear and slowly, but steadily, it will have an adverse effect on morality.
These are schizophrenic arguments. For one, they assume that morality and self-interest are contradictory. This is hardly worth contesting: compartmentalization of this kind hardly exists in real life. Indians badly need practical help and efforts to curb this menace they face in their daily life. Instead of more impotent laws, smart tweaking of the existing legal infrastructure is a much better option.
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