There have been a lot of wrong responses to the global and enduring problem of corruption. Many believe that severe punishment is the way to go, thus the cries for life in prison. Even though fear of punishment certainly helps, it is not a cure. In communist countries, remember, corrupt civil servants were often executed, but graft was much more widespread than in the West.
Others believe that to solve the problem, you need a force of “incorruptibles” at the helm of the country. The problem with this is that corruption tends to appear after elections. Everyone is honest when they’re in the opposition for the very simple reason that they don’t have access to the public coffers. We can only determine whether they are corrupt once they’re in power and congratulate them for not being so after they have left.
The worst response to corruption is voting for politicians who promise quick and radical solutions, meaning a fix that sidesteps the sticky process of rule of law. They are to be avoided because they might actually make good on their promise rather than because they won’t. These are the politicians who usually turn out to be the most corrupt of all. And they usually can’t be prosecuted or unseated either, as they will have already downgraded or destroyed the institutions safeguarding checks and balances.
This is a realization that will soon dawn on the fed-up citizens of Brazil, who just elected a former military officer and sympathizer of a dictatorship that killed thousands of people, a racist who has claimed that he has no problem ordering the tanks into the streets if he thinks it necessary. If he does everything he has promised, he may punish a few corrupt officials of the old regime, but why should he limit himself to them? Without the safeguards provided by the rule of law, anyone can seek to criminalize their political opponents. If he takes it further and suspends democratic institutions in the name of the war on corruption, he will only pave the way for perpetual corruption by abolishing the only true weapon against it.
So we shouldn’t get our hopes up when we hear promises of a hard and fast crackdown on corruption. In the best case, the people making those promises are only interested in being re-elected. It’s like Alternate Health Minister Pavlos Polakis said recently when speaking to the central committee of governing SYRIZA: “The only way to win the election is if we put certain people in prison.”
The worst scenario is that they build their own system of corruption that cannot be controlled by the institutions of transparency and democracy – to “take power,” as SYRIZA and its partner, Independent Greeks, like to say. And who can stop them once they do?