Corruption thrives in an atmosphere of low trust. When people trust their fellow citizens, they are more likely to behave honestly toward them.
Corruption is high when generalized trust is low and particularized trust is strong, as Gambetta argues for the Italian Mafia. Particularized trust makes it easier for people to cheat people who are different from themselves.
Snowden and other leakers in the West are showing the festering wounds of Democracies obsessed with “accountability” and transparency.
As with the use of connections, making “gift” payments did not reduce trust among Romanian survey respondents either in their fellow citizens, their government, the market economy, or democracy.
Some recent studies of corruption and trust in new democracies like Romania concludes that MOST “petty corruption” and “personal connections” do NOT significantly decrease public trust. In fact, some “personal connections” actually increased public trust. It’s mostly the “grand corruptions” that tend to cause problems for a society.
The core to any functional political system and government is simply “trust”. If the public does not trust the system, the system collapses.
Western Democracies for long have claimed that they have the “trust” issue licked, by installing their check-balance and voting systems, to ensure “trust” through transparency and accountability.
That claim may have been too exaggerated. It’s not merely individual acts of corruptions or scandals that occasionally break out in the West. It is the evidence that ordinary people like Snowden simply do not trust their government, despite all of the “steam valves” in the system that are supposed to increase trust.
The real problem of Trust can be illustrated by a personal story of mine.
When I worked as a low-level manager of a small team in a tech company, I was learning my way around different management styles of my colleagues. I noticed 1 of my colleagues managed a very happy team. They generally trusted each other and their manager in work, and could easily resolve any conflicts. I asked him what his secret was. He said, “I bribe them, and I let them bribe me.” “Bribe” was a bit too strong of a word. He explained that for example, if one of his guys wanted to take off a little bit early, he let them, he only ask that they let him know about it, and as long as the work is done or made up. And when he needed the team to pull together in busy times, he would offer them small “bribes”, like take a little earlier leave some other times.
I asked, isn’t that technically in violation of company policies? He answered yes, but in his calculation, it all evened out, no one was really abusing the “small bribes”, and it made things flexible and happy for every one, and the work got done on time. I asked, how did he know if things evened out and no one was abusing the “small bribes”?
He answered, well I guess I just trust them, and because I still see them getting the work done.
That story seemed to match what researchers above found for countries like Romania. That “petty corruption” (things that technically violated rules, but that are really quite small) don’t make much difference for “trust” or equality. No one is really gaining much out of such petty corruptions and personal connections, so it doesn’t affect public trust much.
On the other hand, trust is essentially a kind of faith. If you “second guess” that faith, you lose trust, you don’t gain it, and you lose the reciprocal trust as well. In business management it is well known that “micro-managers” who have to verify every little thing that their employees do, generally do not trust anyone, and they also do not inspire trust in return. This is essentially the problem with “accountability” and “transparency” in Western Democracies, that it is in reality, “second guessing” and “micro-managing”.
The complex system of “check-balance”, “voting”, “accountability” reports, etc., in Western democracies are actually breaking down public trust over time, with everyone expecting “grand corruptions” and “scandals” at every corner of the political system. Which only causes the governments themselves to become ever more secretive. With the end result that now the scandals are really just about the complete lack of “transparency” in the systems of “transparency”. Irony indeed.
Leakers are everywhere now in the West. Snoopers are everywhere too. Citizens are taping Mitt Romney at private parties to catch little scandalous remarks.
Why? “Corruption is high when generalized trust is low and particularized trust is strong, as Gambetta argues for the Italian Mafia. Particularized trust makes it easier for people to cheat people who are different from themselves.” People believe that there is some kind of Mafia like system running the Governments of the West, and they don’t trust the “people who are different”.
*In comparison, the corruptions long complained about in China, are mostly “petty corruptions” and personal connections (“guanxi”/relationships). (Granted, “grand corruptions” do occur in China, as in elsewhere in the world).
But do “guanxi” cause problems of trust, by itself? The studies in Romania and other countries do not suggest so. In fact, they suggest the opposite, that personal connections, such as “guanxi”, actually increases public trust in the government.
That’s natural. If your uncle is a cop, you tend to trust cops. If your college buddy works in the tax office, you tend to trust the tax office. That’s pretty universal in the World.
As the study above argued, petty corruption (in the informal or underground economy) does not significantly influence public trust. And oppositely, Democracy may have a serious problem with TRUST:
Democratization is not a direct route to trust.
The correlation between change in trust in 22 nations from 1981 to the early 1990s (according to the World Values Survey) and variations in Freedom House scores from 1978 to 1988 is modestly negative (-.381). Yet, even this result turns out to be largely an illusion. Without the outlying cases of Argentina and South Korea, the correlation drops the correlation to -.076. An Indian journalist commented on the sharp cleavages that led to a cycle of unstable coalitions, none of which could form a government: “We have the hardware of democracy, but not the software, and that can’t be borrowed or mimicked.”
By the opposite logic, LACK of Western form Democracy does not necessarily decrease in trust. Chinese public, in surveys, have repeatedly indicated high amount of public trust and confidence in their own future.
In my own personal story, I also note that my colleague’s team was also highly competitive. His team members constantly bug him about things they want to see him improve. They literally complain and nag about things they didn’t like at the work place all the time. He holds regularly “gripe sessions”. He takes it as a positive sign, that his team still cared and wanted to be better.
He said to me, “if they stopped complaining, that’s when I would worry. That’s when I know they stopped trusting me, and might be going over me to complain to my bosses.”
What we have in Snowden and other guys like him, are people who have stopped trusting their system, and are taking their complaints out in the open, in the vain hopes that someone might help them. But when the system has come to that point, there is no more trust in it, and “transparency” of this kind is not a good sign, but a symptom of a failing system.
As my colleague summed, Trust is a two-way street. People need to trust their government, and vice versa. And that means forgiving “small transgressions” and not let too many second guessing.
In a way, petty corruptions and guanxi are small ways to allow people to build trust, as my colleague allowed “small bribes” in his team. They are technically not allowed, but everyone does them, and most do not abuse them. They may sound technically bad, yet studies show that they don’t matter much in the big picture.
In a way, the petty corruptions allow people to instill a kind of non-formalistic system of accountability. That being, each individual reach an equilibrium of “acceptable level” of petty corruption with the system. It is like a Prisoner-Dilemma type scenario in game theory, except EVERYONE in the system knows that they shouldn’t over do it, or the system would collapse.
In this scenario, because every individual recognizes the same acceptable equilibrium, they self enforce and form a “trust” among them. Any individual violating that “trust” equilibrium is severely punished, but the equilibrium goes back to normal.
This is actually the optimal kind of acceptable corruption and trust in functional government system, regardless of the system type. This is what China should strive toward, and where the West has deviated from.