Sunday, 28 April 2013

Citizens, Bureaucrats and Politicians: How Corruption Begins

The British newspapers have been full of stuff about the failings of Italy's politicians but very little about the failings of Italy's citizens. But you only get to where Italy has now got itself - in effect, Berlusconi is back - if there are very many stakeholders in corruption.

Maybe a quarter, maybe a third, of Italy's voting citizens vote for Corruption. It makes sense. If you allow politicians their Big Corruption - their bribes, their nepotism, their public works contracts, their perks of office - then they will allow you your Small Corruption - not paying your taxes, paying small bribes to make bureaucrats go away, being yourself the small bureaucrat who takes the bribe, and so on

In any case, there are so many laws in Italy and the compliance costs (queuing) so high that it is pretty much impossible to live within the law even if you want to. So you may as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb - a philosophy which has served Signor Berlusconi very well, since the law's delays mean that you never get hung anyway.

You might say that the relationship between corrupt politicians and corrupt citizens is symbiotic. It's not the best of all possible worlds, but since it is very hard to exit from it, you may as well make the best of it, as do the Mafia and the Vatican.

That thought reminded me of an encounter with my local bureaucracy here in Brighton and Hove a dozen years ago. They were introducing Parking Zones and making a hash of it, drawing lines on maps without actually visiting the streets they were Zoning. I found myself living in a block of flats physically located in a street in one Zone but with a postcode - derived from it's side entrance - which left the building Unzoned . And the Unzoned street was double yellow lined.To cut short a dull story, I rang the Council with my tale of woe. The chap on the other end was already familiar with this kind of problem. And he was ready with Advice: Find someone living  in the Zone who doesn't have a car and ask them to apply for a Permit and hand it to you (for whatever price is agreed)! Problem Solved!

In other words, commit a criminal offence to solve your problem - and relieve us of any obligation to do something about our badly-designed Parking Zones.

At this point, I discovered something about myself: I am not very good at Corruption, even when officially encouraged. I waited for the Zones to be re-drawn and then got my legal Permit. Two years later.

 I didn't have the spunk of Tim Parks - the British writer who for some unaccountable reason lives in Italy - who tells a nice story about his First Time paying a bribe. It was paid to get a bureaucrat off his back and was modest enough to secure only temporary relief: he handed over the money and  watched as the bureaucrat moved his file from the top of a very tall pile - to the bottom. Maybe in the end he set up a Standing Order.

Italy only functions at all because it has a vast Black Economy and informal ways of settling disputes which allow citizens to avoid recourse to the police, lawyers and the judiciary. I guess its politicians rely on those things too. The legal alternatives do not impress: Amanda Knox and the Captain of the Costa Concordia come to mind.


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