Does Corruption Really Grease the Wheels?

Governing is hard. Public bureaucracies are unwieldy, complex machines. If only we could get them running more smoothly.

For some, corruption is the key. Specifically, some corruption is necessary. It is the lubricant that greases the wheels and gets these complex governing structures moving.

The ‘greasing-the-wheels’ hypothesis asserts that public corruption – the misuse of public office for private gain – can be utilized in countries with ineffective institutions and regulations. It can provide an avenue toward efficiency. It must be managed, not policed.

In developed and developing countries alike it is argued, counter-intuitively, that corruption does not hinder economic growth. In fact, proponents of this perspective point out that some countries like Brazil, South Africa, and China have high levels of corruption but have also sustained long periods of economic growth. Further, Malcolm Gladwell waxes poetic about the wonders of police corruption in the New York City of the 60s and 70s that allowed the impoverished to climb the ‘crooked ladder’.

However, building your economic foundation with corruption is hardly sustainable.

Brazil is mired in extreme political volatility and economic despair that was in large part started due to a major corruption scandal involving Petrobras and disgraced former president Dilma Rousseff. South Africa is in the midst of violent protests and political upheaval in the wake of widespread corruption of President Zuma and the ruling ANC party. China’s levels of corruption are actually increasing with their continued but slowing economic growth.

There is no doubt that critics will correctly point out that fighting corruption takes nuance and a zero-tolerance approach has real costs. Surely, they may argue, corruption may not be the best policy, but managing levels of corruption and ensuring ill-gotten money is reinvested in the country of origin is better policy.

There is something to be said in favour of settling for better policy in place of best policy. However, who is going to manage corruption? Corruption as a starting point is inherently opaque; a country’s regulatory ability will be necessarily inefficient and, most importantly, devoid of points of accountability.

Embedding corruption for the sake of short-term stability and economic prosperity creates entrenched pathways for future corruption that gets pushed further down the road until you get what we see in Brazil.

The answer, then, lies in proactive and preventive strategies. A mixture of top-down approaches including transparency initiatives and targeted cash transfers with bottom-up movements for social change. One silver lining amidst the exposed corruption in much of Latin America is the rising trend of bottom-up mass movements for greater due process and transparency.

Admittedly, none of these are miracle solutions, but preventive and proactive strategies are more worthwhile than allowing corruption to grease the wheels.

Corruption may, when the money is flowing, keep things moving but it can – and will – corrode the façade and expose the hollowness of the state over time.

Written By: Nathan Seef

Nathan’s interest in global policy stems from his academic pursuits, having earned a Master’s degree in International Criminology from the University of Sheffield where he specialized in transnational organized crime and the disposal of hazardous waste. His interests are wide-ranging as Nathan has spent time working in South Africa on human rights issues with local NGOs, and completing research projects on the harms associated with lootable resources in civil conflicts.