normative assumptions and corruption

The first thing to note is that there is no distance between how we use corruption in our daily language and the way it is used in political and sociological theories of corruption. You see, the problem we (Indians) face is the asymmetry in the way the word is used while talking about us and the way it is used when talking about India. I want to signal this by putting up the red flag: I want to suggest the reader not to assume the truth of these descriptions.

If we restrict ourselves to the recent past, then Gunnar Myrdal’s The Asian Drama can be used as a reference point for a way of talking that signals the current use of the term. He claimed that corruption (among other things) stood in the way of economic development of these countries. Since then, it has entered the popular discourse to such an extent that corruption is almost seen as a typical problem of developing countries today.

Consider the fact that you complain that one has to pay bribe to get a duplicate of one’s birth-certificate from the municipal office. Why do you complain? Is it because you have to pay money? If you had to pay for any and every such duplicate by law, would you call it corruption as well? (In Belgium, one has to pay for these things over and besides the taxes one pays for organizing public services.) I presume not. Then why do you complain? Because, I suggest, you assume that (a) the clerk is not doing you any personal favor; (b) he is paid by the tax-payer’s money to provide you the service free of charge; (c) he is violating some or another moral precept by charging for what ought to really be free; and such like. If this is the case, it is these assumptions that are responsible for transforming his action into corruption. These are (a) moral assumptions about some or another set moral codes; (b) moral assumptions about the role and function of public offices; (c) moral assumptions about the duties that such a function imposes on the incumbent; and so on. All of these belong to what I have been calling the western normative ethics. In other words, your complaint is a moral one, and it is that thanks to the western normative vocabulary that is available to you through the use of English and the western education.

Let us assume, for a moment, that this clerk’s function was privatized. (After all, why should I or someone else pay for this clerk so that you may get your duplicates?) That is, only those who make use of his office pay for the services they receive. Assume that the clerk charges you a fixed rate by keeping in mind he has to live too and not everybody in the community wants duplicate birth-certificates every day. (To keep the discussion simple, let us assume that the amount is fixed by him.) Would you call this corruption as well? I suppose not.

If you think deep enough on these two modes of organizing public services, you will notice the problem. The clerk acts as though he is doing the second, whereas he appears to belong to the first. The problem of ‘corruption’ in India, I want to submit, arises due to the superimposition of the first on the second.

If this is the case, it ceases being corruption in any sense of the term. Hence my scare quotes as signals. It is intended to signal that the western normative ethics is structuring our experience itself, even when we think that we do not know what that normative ethics is all about. We need not study a western text-book on ethics in order to find out what it is. We merely need to interrogate the way we talk and the way (we think) we experience our own culture. What I have tried to do in the article is to draw your attention to the consequences of this way of structuring our experiences at a social and cultural level. In other words, I was hoping that these scare quotes would force one to interrogate one’s own experience. Hence the speed bumps: do not read further without pausing to think through the implications.