The legalisation debate: why allowing bribery won’t work

Imagine having to pay a bribe in order to register your marriage, get a passport, report a crime or even to claim on your medical insurance.  These are just a few examples taken from over 20,000 stories shared online on the Indian website,  Similar stories of petty bribery can be heard in Greece, Zimbabwe or Mexico. Indeed, one in four people worldwide are faced with demands for bribes to access public services.

The World Bank’s new chief economist, Kaushik Basu, also Chief Economic Advisor to the Indian Government, last month suggested legalising bribery to encourage the bribe giver to report incidents of bribery without fear of punishment:

The bribe giver goes scot free and will be able to collect his bribe money back. The bribe taker on the other hand, loses the booty of the bribe and faces a hefty punishment.

Legalisation or empowerment? Transparency International India helps local communities organise against corruption. See more photos below.

Partial legalisation may not be the fool proof corruption buster that Basu envisages. His reasoning is simple, but his argument doesn’t add up.

The problem is not getting people to report corruption. 140000 people have reported corruption to our legal advice centres, and 75 per cent of people say they would report an act of corruption.

The problem is what happens when corruption is reported. The problem is impunity for those who bribe.

The case for legalising bribery is based on two false assumptions:

1. Bribe payers don’t go to the authorities for fear of getting punished themselves.

2. That bribe takers actually get punished when corruption is reported. Too often, law enforcement agencies fail to punish bribers, be it for lack of political will to fight corruption, lack of resources, or in the worst cases, corruption in the justice system.

Legalisation would not have the desired effect if enforcement is slow and costly then the bribe payer might have more to gain from keeping quiet. He avoids the costs and hassles of reporting the offence and doesn’t ruffle anyone’s feathers.

Worse still – what if the enforcement authority is in the habit of taking bribes?

Police corruption is a global phenomenon. People in 31 of the 100 countries we surveyed said the police were the most corrupt institution in their country. 63 per cent of Indians who came in contact with the police were asked to pay a bribe. In Bangladesh 64 % of citizens who had dealings with the courts paid a bribe in the process.

In this context, it looks unlikely that risk of punishment for the bribe taker will increase as much as Basu predicts – meaning that officials probably won’t feel too anxious about continuing to pocket handy cash bribes.

On top of this, as Basu recognises

Once it is clear that a bribe giver has immunity from bribery law, many more people will be willing to give bribes.

Bribe takers and bribe givers alike will not change their conduct if governments don’t enforce the anti-bribery laws essential to the fight against corruption, and that enforcement authorities act effectively and independently.

It makes sense to try and change behaviour rather than just make laws, but the legalisation argument doesn’t work if the laws don’t have teeth in the first place.

Do you think your country’s enforcement authorities are up to standard?

Do you feel like you can trust your policemen, judges and politicians to fight corruption?

Share your views in the comment space below.

Legalisation or empowerment? See photos of how Transparency International India helps local communities organise against corruption below:

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Sophia Coles

About Sophia Coles

Sophia Coles is intern in the Conventions team at Transparency International.

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5 Responses to The legalisation debate: why allowing bribery won’t work

  1. Soumya Saxena
    soumya 21 December 2012 at 11:11 am #

    The Bribery culture has another angle to it, not just to get things done but also to get things done fast. Imagine only one passport office and one magistrates court in a cilty of 13 million?
    People want to get their things done soon therefore bribing comes handy, to move your file up in the bundle of bureaucracy. The government certianly needs to increase the working force by creating more offices. sub offices to delegate work. This will help in reducing the work load, make the system more efficient and save people from having to pay a bribe to get their work done quickly.

  2. James Anderson 22 December 2012 at 4:13 pm #

    I fully agree with this article. We recently did a survey in Vietnam and the reasons people don’t report bribes (or even requests for them) have less to do with fear of prosecution than with fear that nothing will come of it, and the fact that many are willing (but not necessarily happy) participants in the bribery. Some 90 percent of those who paid said it was never explicitly requested. In such a case, why would the payer report the bribe? Often the bribes are paid to speed things along or to circumvent regulations. The supply side of bribery is already part of the problem–legalizing the paying of bribes will only exacerbate the problem. I recall that Slovakia tried just this more than a decade ago and it backfired.

    Thanks again for posting this piece. I hope it sparks some good discussion.

  3. Debate - Julio 27 December 2012 at 9:34 am #

    I think this is a practice of bribery that was always barter. Give something and receive something, do a favor and return. It is difficult to try to change the action duct installed in society.
    No I do not trust in police, military or judges of my country.

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