15 October 2016 ~ 0 Comentarios

Corruption and history

By Carlos Alberto Montaner

lula-detenidoBrazilians Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff could end up in prison for corruption. Especially Lula. Also the Spaniard Mariano Rajoy and the Argentine Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, if prosecutors prove the charges that hang over their heads.

Why go on? At this moment, there are more than 30 European and Latin American heads or former heads of state in prison, expatriated, or suspected of embezzlement, misappropriation of funds, money laundering and other coarser ways to steal the resources of society for personal benefit or to foment political patronage. I’m not even including the Africans and many Asians, because the list would be too long.

The usual scheme consists of a criminal triangle. There are some politicians or functionaries who have the authority to grant juicy state contracts and there are some businessmen who are willing to undertake those projects but not to win them in open, clean and truly competitive bids but through tricks and deals. Between them there’s usually a “bagman” who negotiates with the businessmen in the name of the politicians, receives the bribe, splits it, and keeps a slice.

The goods and services thus billed usually have a surcharge that ranges between 3 percent and 30 percent, which society ends up paying through its taxes. There’s no such thing as a free lunch or a free theft. The tendency is for each government to increase the percentage of corruption and involve more people in the plunder. Corruption, like an infection, worsens and propagates gradually through the social body.

That overbilling is not the costliest part, however. What’s worse is the spreading putrefaction of the rule of law. If the politicians do it, why not the policemen, the military officers or any functionary within his professional tasks? Everything ends up having its price: from the simplest request for a certificate to the permit to build a factory that will benefit the whole of society.

None of this is new. Nobel laureate economist Douglass North calls them “limited-access orders.” It has always been thus and continues to be in three fourths of the planet. What’s really strange and novel is the pulchritude in the management of public money. For millennia, from the very early States, collusion has existed between the producers of resources and the ruling class that manages public affairs. They need one another and feed on one another.

In limited-access societies, awareness of crime never even existed. To be part of the aristocracy meant not paying taxes; actions for the benefit of the Crown were rewarded with special privileges. Before Spain deprived Hernán Cortés of practically everything, it rewarded his services in the conquest of Mexico with a title of nobility and some taxes from 20,000 Indians. The assignation of preferential treatment was a natural thing.

That began to change in 1776, when the Americans separated from England, broke up with King George III, declared that all men were equal before the Law, abolished privileges and proclaimed a Republic. Unwittingly, by canceling lineages, they had created the first “open-access society,” founded on the market and meritocracy.

It is true that women and blacks were left out of the equation, something that would be corrected later overcoming many obstacles, but the relation between society and the State was substantially modified. People had transformed into sovereign citizens, legitimized because they were taxpayers, while the politicians and functionaries became humble public servants who received their wages from the people. Money was the great legitimizing factor and had to be handled scrupulously.

Starting from that example, other societies started to copy the political structure of the United States, but not all of them understood that success did not lie in inspiring themselves on the 1787 Constitution forged in Philadelphia but on subscribing to the ethical principles that gave life to the first modern Republic.

Today there are some 25 or 30 nations — the usual suspects, led by the Scandinavian countries — that have internalized the moral principles of the “open-access” societies and adjusted their behavior to the legal standards established in the codes. This is a slow process that, with time, will spread worldwide.

The key is in the Judiciary. Brazilian federal judge Sergio Moro has pushed his country’s politicians and businessmen against the ropes, approximately the way Italian judge Antonio di Pietro in the 1990s unleashed “Operation Clean Hands,” sending 1,233 corrupt politicians, businessmen and functionaries behind bars, thereby demolishing the entire post-World War Two political structure.

Little by little, the same will happen in the rest of the world.

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