Is society to blame?

After so many years of rampant corruption, the most interesting question that arises from the claim that the Mevgal dairy company was the victim of a spectacular blackmail attempt is: «Why do they do it?» Why, when some find themselves in positions that they can exploit for their own enrichment, do they not fight the temptation? The discussion over corruption has been raging since antiquity. Conditions and reasons vary from age to age, chiefly because of the different social framework of the time. For example, in republican Rome, it was expected of an ambitious young man to spend a fortune on his climb up the ladder of office – until the twilight of his career. Then he would be rewarded with the governorship of a rich province, which was expected to more than compensate for what he and his patrons had spent until then. In later ages, such as the Byzantine and Ottoman empires and the great years of the papacy, high office was often sold, with the lucky winner recouping his costs by fleecing the populace. Today we are supposed to live in another era. Our society – theoretically – is based on principles whereby citizens live together peacefully as equals, where each is rewarded according to his or her specialty and contribution to the social whole. This has been achieved in the more advanced societies (both in East and West), where institutions prevent violations and punish them strictly when they are committed. But when salaries are not in keeping with the needs or expectations of civil servants, when procedures are complicated (and therefore give rise to murky dealings), when the objects or services being negotiated are of such great value, when society is indifferent to the fact that many acquire great wealth by shady means, then it would be a miracle if corruption did not spread through every aspect of public (and often private) life like a thick fog. The past few days, we have witnessed a dramatic case of corruption – one of the few that have seen the light of day – in which extortionists allegedly demanded 2.5 million euros from the Mevgal company. If the charges against the Competition Committee official and his two alleged accomplices are proved, this scandal will go down in our history as an example of corruption in high places. The guilty will be punished and stigmatized, paying for the sins of all those who escape arrest. But what happens with so many others who exploit their positions in a thousand and one ways at the expense of those who respect their fellow citizens? What will happen with, let’s say, the members of municipal councils who dictate a new town plan so that it increases the value of their own property at the expense of others, or judges who may have other interests in the same regions where they are posted? These outstanding members of society may not be committing a crime the way that a doctor or civil servant commits one when accepting a bribe. But when the leading members of society exploit power (both elected and judicial) for their own ends, they cause the greatest possible harm to society because they send out a clear message that only through such means can one get ahead, that equality and rewards based on merit are myths. But the worst thing they are guilty of is that they divide our society into those who have no power to exploit and those who benefit from this weakness of their neighbors. In this way, Greece is divided into two parallel worlds: the one ruled by corruption, the other by hard work.