Everybody--even corrupt people--say they are against corruption. But corruption is rampant nonetheless. How come? It's not because corrupt people, when caught, are not punished. China even uses the death penalty for corruption, as reported in today's Guardian article titled, "Liu Zhijun, China's ex-railway minister, sentenced to death for corruption."
The reason corruption persists is because it is able to disguise itself as law-abiding respectability. Take Mr. Liu Zhijun, China's ex-railway minister facing the death penalty, for example. His corruption is described this way:
Liu's corruption apparently went on for many years. The article reports, "Liu stood trial at Beijing No. 2 Intermediate People's Court on 9 June for accepting £6m in bribes between 1986 and 2011 and using his position to help 11 people win promotions or lucrative contracts, according to the state newswire Xinhua."
During the years of Mr. Liu's corruption prior to his recent arrest he was seen as a respectable law-abiding person. Here's the point: He was seen this way in spite of being quite visibly a very rich person enjoying luxuries most Chinese peasants could hardly even dream of. It's not as if Mr. Liu lived a life style apparently indistinguishable from most Chinese peasants in terms of wealth and luxury, and that he was only recently discovered to be secretly enjoying great wealth and luxury. No, his great wealth and luxurious living was known to all who cared to look at it; what was not known to all was that he acquired his wealth and luxury by illegal instead of legal means. Owning (living in, or collecting rents from, it matters not) "350 flats" and owning "16 cars" and having "18 mistrisses" is fairly visible to others; but taking a bribe can be virtually invisible.
In societies that permit some to be rich and others poor, it is not easy to tell whether a rich person is a respectable law-abiding citizen or a corrupt person like Mr. Liu. In such societies corruption can and will persist, using the disguise of respectability quite successfully. Now and then corrupt individuals get caught, like the unfortunate Mr. Liu, but for every one who is caught there are no doubt lots who aren't.
Don't Let Corruption Remain Invisible
The obvious way to eliminate most corruption is to make it totally visible, to make it impossible for a corrupt person to disguise him or herself as a respectable law-abiding person. What would this mean, exactly?
It would mean declaring possession of the fruits of corruption--such as 16 cars and more than 350 flats and 18 mistresses (let's be real; they were essentially women forced into prostitution by economic hardship)--to be corruption, no matter how such possession is obtained. In other words, it would mean adopting the morality reflected in the phrase, "From each according to ability, to each according to need." It would mean that anybody who saw Mr. Liu enjoying his multiple cars and flats and "mistresses" would be able to see immediately that Mr. Liu was in grotesque violation of "to each according to need" and would be able to accuse him of corruption, without having to enquire into whether he had been taking bribes or not. It would mean redefining corruption to include taking much more than one needs, no matter how one does it.*
Until we adopt this morality, we are, with respect to financial corruption, in the same position we would be with respect to child molestation if we had a morality that said some people have a right to commit child abuse and others don't. Imagine a society that said it was legal to commit child abuse if one first met certain legal conditions of a private, and hence invisible, nature (the way it is invisible whether one gets rich legally or by accepting bribes.) Imagine a Mr. Smith in this society who quite visibly abuses children. Like Mr. Liu in China, our Mr. Smith, as far as anybody can tell, is a perfectly respectable law-abiding citizen who happens to abuse children, as is his legal right. Maybe one day somebody will discover that Mr. Smith did not obtain the legal right to abuse children and he will be punished. But for every Mr. Smith who is caught, many other illegal child abusers are not.
Obviously, the problem in Mr. Smith's society is that it makes it legal for some people to commit child abuse. And equally obviously, the problem in our current societies is that they make it legal for some to be very rich while others are very poor. The solution is to make "From each according to ability, to each according to need" the moral basis of our entire economy. How this can be done is discussed in Thinking about Revolution.
* Thomas Paine put it this way in his essay, "Agrarian Justice" written in 1795-6:
"The superstitious awe, the enslaving reverence, that formerly surrounded affluence, is passing away in all countries, and leaving the possessor of property to the convulsion of accidents. When wealth and splendour, instead of fascinating the multitude, excite emotions of disgust; when, instead of drawing forth admiration, it is beheld as an insult upon wretchedness; when the ostentatious appearance it makes serves to call the right of it in question, the case of property becomes critical, and it is only in a system of justice that the possessor can contemplate security."
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