Corruption, Gravity & Litter

Posted by Mike LaBossiere on February 3, 2012


The Daily Show recently featured an interesting interview with Yale Law School professor Jonathan Macey. One part of the interview that I found especially interesting was Macey’s “defense” of capital firms like Bain in terms of what seemed to be the necessity (in the logical sense) of corruption. Macey made the fascinating claim that social scientists regard corruption as on par with gravity-something that they simply must include in their analysis and something to be presumably treated as a natural force.

While I was on my morning run, I mulled over this idea in the context of my own classes and wondered about a key question: is corruption like gravity in this regard? Further reflection led me to consider what I take to be a better analogy, namely Thoreau’s analogy to the friction of a machine.

Thoreau notes that “all machines have their friction-possibly it does enough good to balance the evil. ” In this case, Thoreau’s machine is the government and the friction is the inefficiency and corruption of this government. As such, this seems to nicely match the point being made by Macey, namely that corruption seems to be a constant presence.

Both Thoreau and Macey seem to be correct: it seems as difficult to imagine a large political and economic system free of corruption as it is to conceive of a frictionless machine. That said, there is still a rather interesting matter to address, namely whether or not the analogy truly holds.

It is rather tempting to simply accept that corruption is unavoidable, mainly because that seems to be the case. As I ran and thought about this matter, I saw litter on the streets, sidewalks and even the running trails (I picked up as much as I could carry). As might be imagined, I made the obvious comparison between corruption and litter: both seem to always be present and unavoidable. That said, there is still the matter of the nature of this alleged inevitability.

In the case of a literal machine, fiction seems to be unavoidable because of the nature of matter and motion. As such, a machine cannot help but have friction (unless, of course, truly frictionless machines are possible). After all, its friction is not a matter of its choice or decisions on its part. This might not, however, hold true in the case of corruption.

If the corruption of the political and economic system is comparable to the friction of a machine, then it would seem that being critical of the corruption and even blaming people for it would be as absurd as blaming an engineer because the engine she designed is not frictionless. The corruption, it would seem, would be something we must simply accept. The same would thus be true of litter-it is simply something that must be there.

As might be suspected, my comparison between litter and corruption is quite intentional. Litter is, obviously enough, the result of decisions on the part of the folks who littered. It is not the case that litter just appears or that people are compelled to engage in littering by the laws of litter. While some people will, it seems, always decide to litter it does make sense to say that they could, in fact, have chosen to do otherwise. For example, I saw someone open his window and throw a fast food bag onto the side of the road. He was, presumably, not compelled to do this by some sort of litter law that ensures that the correct percentage of litter is on the ground. In contrast, the friction that slowed and stopped the bag was under the dominion of the relevant physical laws-the bag had no choice. As such, there could actually be a world without litter-if everyone decided not not litter, then there would be no (intentional) litter. This is unlikely, but it is not because it cannot be done-rather it will not happen because people will elect not to make it happen.

The same would seem to be true of corruption. The corruption in politics and economics exists because of what people elect to do (or not do). As such, there could be a system without corruption-if people decided to not act in corrupt ways. This, like a litter free world, is incredibly unlikely. But this is not because it cannot be done. It is unlikely because people will chose not to create such a system.

It might be replied that the system is beyond the control of people. After all, the political and economic systems involve millions (billions worldwide) and trying to fight corruption would fighting a force of nature, like a tsunami. As such, corruption is a necessary part of the system.

Thoreau has an interesting reply to this sort of reasoning. He notes that he “has relations to the millions as men, and not mere brute or inanimate things, so appeal is possible.” It is also the case that although these systems are vast and complicated, they are created by people. As such, any corruption (or litter) must be put there by people-the corruption (like litter) does not just appear it must be intentionally placed. If humans are capable of free choice, then they would presumably be capable of choosing not to have corruption-just as they would presumably be capable of choosing not to litter.

I suspect that people tolerate litter and corruption on a similar basis, namely the mistaken belief that it is inevitable and beyond our control. However, just as each bit of litter is the result of some person’s choice, each bit of corruption is also the result of choice. As such, the defense that corruption is part of the system is no better a defense for corruption that claiming that litter is just part of the system.

However, even if it is accepted that the machine of society must have the friction of corruption, then Thoreau’s words would still seem to apply: “when the friction has its machine, and oppression and robbery are organized, let us not have the machine. ” As such, while we might no more be able to be rid of corruption than litter, this is not a reason to tolerate it or to allow it to dominate. Just as I can refuse to litter I can refuse to be corrupt. Just as I can fight the filthy messes of litter created by the lazy and immoral, I can also fight the corruption of the wicked. At the very least, I should not contribute or tolerate the misdeeds of either.


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