Tuesday, 13 March 2012
Corruption: Top-down will not work
By: Raghu Murtugudde
For those who are not Indians, corruption scandals in India are not new but are getting ever bigger in terms of the money involved. The sale of the 2G spectrum without proper procedures is the latest one. It has gone on with a few low-level ministers being thrown in jail while the investigation goes on and it has finally taken a toll on the past Director of the Indian Space Research Organization – he has been banned from holding government positions. This has outraged the scientific community since Dr. Madhav Nair is a scientist and still active. There have been many discussions already on the corruption scandals in India and the repulsiveness of the whole situation and the new-found great-soul, Anna Hazare. But I am wondering if Anna has misunderstood the real Mahatma's philosophy just a little. Sure he has led some grassroots work and has been leading a mass movement of sorts. But then he is always threatening hunger strike and other political actions when he doesn't get his way. So there seems to be a disconnect in transitioning the public anger into lasting action because he is venturing into politics for a top-down solution rather than sticking to a bottom-up agenda.
Simple way of thinking bottom-up is with a few examples. Everybody is 'corrupt' in the sense that experiments show that people waste resources when they are 'free'. So we use more toilet paper at a public restroom than at home. There is a general tendency to grab more than necessary in shared-resource situations even though not always enough to drive a tragedy of the commons. May be politicians, who are dealing with so much of the people's money simply start grabbing some and before they know it, they have taken so much that there is just no sense and it reaches scandalous levels.
How should bottom-up work? Well, it turns out that if we enter a restroom that smells clean, then we try to leave it as clean as we found it but if it doesn't, then we are not as careful. If you walk into an interview room where everybody is wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase, you will feel out of place unless you are also doing the same. In other words, human brain internalizes norms rapidly and they even become preferences. So if a new politician joins a government and sees that everybody is stealing, then he/she is more likely to do the same or at least not fight it too hard since that may appear to be the norm. Sounds naïve but the scale of these things does matter in terms of fighting one free-rider vs. a system of free-riders. The most basic tenet of the cooperative species is the moral punishment of those who break the norm but then it depends on what the norm is! A norm by itself is not moral. Just think of how many of us are much more civic-minded in the US and turn into consummate 'desis' as soon as we land in India:-). US drives a better behavior just because it is a cleaner toilet and everybody is carrying the metaphoric suitcase.
So Anna has to spend at least sometime in driving bottom-up honesty among aam-junta and make the entire system smell like a clean toilet. The new generation is quite westernized so they want to make their money and spend it each night going out to eat and drink. Ironically, they may drive a cleaner civic society because their dopamine levels are driving a more focused reward-seeking behavior in terms of hard work and not via corruption. The side effect of course will be the nuclearization of families and sexual behavior will be more focused on extrinsic values rather than a family-oriented intrinsic value system, leading to a more disconnected and less-networked society. Anomie a-la Durkheim will be the price to pay but corruption will just move into much deeper and darker dungeons just like in the western world. State will dominate all the violence and corruption but it will be kept away from daily life. And that's all a clean-smelling toilet can offer. Not eliminate corruption but put some nice perfume on it and move it into the closet.