Throughout human history, corruption has been a problem. Where there is power, there is someone willing to abuse it and place their own interests before that of society. But what forms does this abuse take? What does it cost us? What can we do about it? Is there such a thing as being free from corruption, or is the system doomed to continue to be flawed?
Corruption takes many forms, but is chiefly seen in politics and business. Some even regard the charity sector as being corrupt, given that some charities only give pennies in the pound to the cause they promote, the rest disappearing on huge salaries and promotion. But the issue of corruption in politics is perhaps the most concerning, given that we have greater freedom to spend our money where we wish. However, although we are able to choose who we vote for, when the whole political system is often seen as dishonest the natural consequence is that people lose faith in it.
In the US, people are well aware of the influence that lobbyists in Washington exert on political representatives. These paid advocates seek to persuade politicians to enact legislation favourable to the interests of their sponsors. The mere fact that this activity is permitted undermines the trust that many citizens have in their elected representatives, even the ones that they have voted for, as it allows for the influence of business interests who the people have clearly not voted for. It also means that “money talks”, and leaves those without the power and influence of wealth feeling ignored and controlled.
Many people are sceptical that action will ever be taken to control corruption in politics. In the UK in 2009, a scandal erupted concerning the expenses of MPs and peers. Many were found to be claiming money that they were not entitled to. These revelations caused serious damage to the reputation of the British political system, as voters felt that no politicians could be trusted. It appeared that corruption was endemic, with MPs from all parties and at all levels caught up in the scandal. Some were ordered to repay part of their expenses, and a handful were even charged with criminal offences. However, many were deemed to have acted within the rules, in spite of evidence to the contrary – leaving the public believing that the system of checks and balances was as corrupt as the system it purported to review.
Corruption not only costs us money, but erodes our trust. If we see that a charity we support is spending more money on six-figure salaries or diverting funds to inappropriate sources, we lose faith in that charity. When we read that MPs are receiving allowances for staff but employing their relatives, or charging the public purse for a second home that they don’t need, we lose faith not only in them but in the system. We wonder if it is worth exercising our right to vote, if that right has very little meaning in practice.
Sadly, it is difficult to avoid corruption altogether. Perhaps we can only limit it. As Lord Acton said in the 19th century, “Power tends to corrupt”. Would-be politicians may have the best of intentions, but it would not be surprising if positions of power were to attract individuals who already had a tendency to look out for their own interests. Perhaps the best way of controlling corruption as best we can is to ensure transparency – but that depends on the very people who have the most to gain by avoiding it.