Home > Uncategorized > What Snowden Affair Teaches About Corruption, Trust, and Government in the World

What Snowden Affair Teaches About Corruption, Trust, and Government in the World

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.


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  1. pug_ster
    June 14th, 2013 at 04:14 | #1


    I love this article about Obama’s Monica moment. At the height of NSA scandal, Obama wants to deflect the attention by arming these Syrian FSA thugs, like Clinton decided to attack Afghanistan during the height of the Monica scandal.


    Not to mention the US wants to blame China somehow set up Snowden to spy for China.

  2. Zack
    June 14th, 2013 at 04:53 | #2

    they need to shift the onus away from the NSA and the USGovernment and towards outsiders. Appeal to xenophobia is such a tried and true American political tactic.

    Insinuating that Snowden is comparable to Jonathon Pollard is typical of the panicky Washington elite.

  3. Zack
    June 14th, 2013 at 04:57 | #3

    If ever there was anything deceitful that can be said about the US Governmet, this whole entire PRISM affair would foot the bill nicely.
    Despite trying to claim to be a paragon of internet freedom and safety, the Obama administration has broken its own declarations of morality by launching the first stuxnet cyber attack and is curently working to make cyberspace a key part of their ‘full spectrum dominance’ arsenal.
    A great insight from Wired on the NSA and its cyber warfare activities:

  4. June 14th, 2013 at 10:32 | #4

    According to this NYT article, looks like China’s computers deserve to be hacked – even when they are civilian – because the boundary between civilian and gov’t is blurry. You can’t trust the gov’t in China – and you can’t trust the people either by this definition! So now we have justified attacks against gov’ts to be expanded to attacks against its people…


    Mr. Snowden told the newspaper that the computers were in the civilian sector. But Western experts have long said that the dividing line between the civilian sector and the government is very blurry in China. State-owned or state-controlled enterprises still control much of the economy, and virtually all are run by Communist Party cadres who tend to rotate back and forth between government and corporate jobs every few years as part of elaborate career development procedures.

    Depending on how you look at it, the boundary in the U.S. is even more blurred. People routinely move from gov’t to civilian and vice versa (it’s called a revolving door policy). Government officials – in democratically elected gov’ts – are civilians by definition. Safe for the professional politicians, every gov’t official is a civlian who after serving his term becomes civilian.

    Going by NYT’s logic that civilian computers deserve to be hacked because the line between gov’t and civilian is “blurry”, shouldn’t most computers in the U.S. be justified legitimate targets?

  5. Black Pheonix
    June 14th, 2013 at 11:01 | #5

    Also, most tech companies in US take on government contracts. In which case, doesn’t that automatically open up their computers as government targets?

    They certainly are required as part of their government contract to install government level computer security, and be audited according to government contractor standards.

    Seemed like the government were expected to be hacked as legitimate targets.

  6. Black Pheonix
    June 14th, 2013 at 11:38 | #6

    The additional effects of Snowden-type leaks are:

    (1) The public trust for government is less, because the public actually sees that the system is NOT transparent as they expected. Thus, the public becomes less willing to trust, and expect more scandals.

    (2) the government trust the public less, because the politicians are more concerned for additional scandals in the future, that they are fearful of public scrutiny. Things that they might have considered explaining to the public, now fear the public to be more suspicious and more willing to look up any kind of secrecy as scandal.

    (3) increase public and government apathy toward the system. Less willingness to participate or cooperate, because no one want to become part of a next scandal.

    (4) more concerned about appearance in public, less concerned for actual results.

    (5) more willing to take risky decisions outside of domestic check-balance system, since those areas of politics carry little or none accountability. (Syrian War for example).

  7. Black Pheonix
    June 14th, 2013 at 18:57 | #7

    Denial reaches zenith in US regarding Snowden:


    Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations recently tweeted, “Why is the media using sympathetic word ‘whistleblower’ for Edward #Snowden, who leaked secret #NSA program? He broke the law & made us less safe.”
    He added, “A ‘whistleblower’ is person who reveals wrongdoing, corruption, illegal activity. None of this applies here even if you oppose US (government) policy.”

    *Well, technically, when Snowden “leaked” the information, he was outside of US, in HK China.

    At the time he took the information in US, he had proper lawful access to the information.

    If you want to get super technical, Snowden committed no crime in US. (other than perhaps failure to return classified material).

    And i’m not sure if leaking information of this kind is a crime in HK. (It does not appear to be).

    Well, sort of like “rendition”/torture done by US government outside of US territory are NOT really a crime or violation of US Constitution, right??!

  8. June 15th, 2013 at 10:17 | #8

    This one of the most nuanced critiques about governance and state-society relations I’ve seen in a while. I would only add one more nuance about the concept of trust.

    I think democracy – as it was originally intended in America by its founders – was envisioned as an inherently distrustful system. After all, checks & balances are hardly necessary if those who govern can be trusted to make the right decisions. In fact, a well-functioning democracy relies a great deal on skepticism and distrust.

    However, there are healthy and unhealthy forms of distrust. The healthy kind that contributes to the preservation of the democratic system, & the unhealthy kind that undermines it. When referring to “healthy distrust”, things such as independent, scientific verification of government claims, participation in elections, intelligent public discourse and advocacy based on transparent and accurate information.

    This scandal has clearly shown that the aforementioned forms of healthy distrust is all but non-existent (at least in the defense and security sphere) in the US. The American people knows next to nothing about the workings of their own defense and intelligence apparatus, no intelligent public discourse or advocacy is possible in such an environment. In addition, given that the modern-day election process has essentially became a one-dollar-one-vote system, participation in elections (either as a voter or a candidate) offers little prospect of changing the status quo.

    What is perhaps the most unhealthy manifestations of distrust is apathy. The wellbeing of a democracy depends very much on the active participation of those governed, and the INFORMED consent of the populace. When people become indifferent and apathetic to the point of not wanting to participate & no longer seeking solutions within the system. Another form of apathy is simple acceptance of government corruption & infringement on the rights of citizens. The fact that Americans reacted with indifference to the PRISM scandal is a loud and clear sign of a combination of both.


    That said, as someone who does not believe in the inherent superiority or the inevitability of democracy over other forms of government, I say that if Americans have no desire to defend their own form of government or their existing way of life, and allow their elites to convert the country into a de facto authoritarian state (or more likely, a dysfunctional quasi-democratic oligarchy), its not my place to judge them. However, it is worth pointing out that this scandal demonstrates that the democratic government is not the only thing that is rapidly in decline in America, but also American society’s gradual slide toward indifference to their supposedly cherished political ideology beyond its face value.

  9. Black Pheonix
    June 16th, 2013 at 12:49 | #9

    I recommend the movie, “We Steal Secrets – The Story of Wikileaks”.

    BTW, the title “We Steal Secrets”, actually came from General Hayden, Ex-Director of CIA and NSA, when he described what US government secret agencies did in an interview for the movie.

  10. Zack
    June 17th, 2013 at 05:09 | #10

    i have to say, i’m certainly deriving an immense sense of enjoyment out of seeing such sterling ‘Champions of Human Rights’ as the United States (especially, Obama) and the United Kingdom defending their own violations of privacy and human rights, and most gratifyingly, watching their entire rotten mirage of ‘noble saviour of internet freedoms’ come crashing down with each revelation from Edward Snowden.

    also, News Update: the British GCHQ and the NSA were revealed to have spied upon and hacked delegates of the G-20. Now that’s going to lead to some awkward question time at the G-8 lol

  11. Black Pheonix
    June 17th, 2013 at 06:48 | #11

    Xi had a good hit line against Obama. Xi purposefully booked to stay a a hotel far away from “Sunnyland”, in fear of being spied on.

    In the future, China should do more of these.

    For example, next G-20, China should host its own separate “get together” some where far away from the main event.

    Call it, “No Phones or Emails Party”. 😉

  12. Black Pheonix
    June 17th, 2013 at 06:58 | #12

    Unfortunately, the People of the West are still in immense denial.

    One of my colleagues said, “Well, No one is really surprised. It’s kinda expected.”

    I asked why.

    He replied, “Well, We sort of knew that they COULD, but we just didn’t think they WOULD.”

    *Consider that logic for a moment. It sounds good, but it’s actually circular.

    YES, that statement is generalized enough that it is true for pretty much every SURPRISING event in History.

    Genocide? “We sort of knew that they COULD, but we just didn’t think they WOULD.”

    Atomic bombs on Japanese cities? “We sort of knew that they COULD, but we just didn’t think they WOULD.”

    *This kind of common reaction in the West actually is very indicative of the Apathy and Disconnect of the People toward their own “Democracy”.

    In other words, the People of the West are falling back to the mere Apathetic generalized pessimistic statement of “We sort of knew that they COULD, but we just didn’t think they WOULD” as a mild reaction to things that should have provoked strong anger and/or paranoia.

    It’s kind of like “Eh, what can I do?” Or just “I give up.”

    *This is the ultimate result of REAL corruption, that the People simply give up. They are not surprised by outrageous things, they are not motivated by any real challenges (like Snowden).

    They are simply blah-ed.

    And I don’t buy the stats on “voting” to point to whether people are motivated, because even the Voters know not to expect any thing from their own votes any more.

    They are just voting to go through the motions.

  13. Black Pheonix
    June 17th, 2013 at 08:07 | #13

    Grasping for straws (or connections) with China, of course:


    Now apparently, China has the capability of remote brainwashing.

    That’s some amazing magic trick: Snowden was in US, working for the US government all those years, while somehow, he was getting “manipulated” by China, behind the scenes.

    Boy, some people are just so obsessed with China.

  14. Zack
    June 18th, 2013 at 05:37 | #14

    @Black Pheonix
    it was the chinese takeaway that got Snowden to ‘defect’. Clearly, all Chinese takeaway and all its delicious dumplings must be brainwashing assets!!

  15. Black Pheonix
    June 18th, 2013 at 07:01 | #15


    I pity the Chinese takeaway delivery boy, he’s going to be on the No Fly List soon.

  16. Black Pheonix
    June 18th, 2013 at 07:18 | #16

    Snowden releases more slides from NSA, which admitting that UK spied on G-20 summit:


  17. Black Pheonix
    June 18th, 2013 at 07:22 | #17


    German intelligence expert Erich Schmidt-Eenboom is not surprised by the news. “They did their job. The Government Communications Headquarter has three functions. They not only have to safeguard national security and fight crime but also have to work for the economic interests of Britain.”

    Oh wait, Admitting to actual “economic espionage” now??

  18. Zack
    June 18th, 2013 at 18:34 | #18

    @Black Pheonix
    certainly shits all over the anglo countries’ moans over being cyberespionaged from China.

    More damningly, they were doing it to President Medvedev at the height of the US-Russia ‘reset’. This clearly shows that the US/UK are disingenuous when it comes to diplomacy, and should be treated with the highest level of distrust.

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