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Is bribing public officials ever justified?

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It’s a double-edged sword

Though it sounds controversial, the practice of bribery has both positive and negative effects.

In recent years, there has been a lot of news concerning public officials being bribed. For instance VimpelCom, the Russian mobile phone operator, admitted to bribing a government official related to the President of Uzbekistan to gain entry into the country and secure valuable telecom licences.

Bribery is a form of corruption, which refers to the abuse of entrusted power for private gain. This is because there can be no bribery without corruption. Yet, to a large extent, the practice of bribing public officials could be justified from an economic point of view.

Writer Chris Matthews argued that a small amount of controlled corruption could function as a lubricant to overcome some difficulties. Academic Nii Lante Wallace-Bruce argued that the practice of bribing public officials might be beneficial to a society in which low-level officials are paid insufficiently (the bribe-givers who use the system are the ones that fund the system by “topping off” official salaries).

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Others, like Nathaniel Leff, have argued that corruption is not a negative phenomenon by itself, but is an indicator of deficiencies. In this sense, bureaucratic corruption is a way that developing countries cope with the deficiencies that are present in the political and economic systems.

However, there are multiple sources who argue the practice of bribery cannot be justified from an economic point of view.

Jakob Svensson, a professor of economics in Stockholm, argued that there is a strong negative linkage between the wealth of a nation and its level of corruption, and the corruption will often harm the poorest in the society. Another argued that the fundamental cost of corruption is that the decision is made with personal profit rather than public profit.

In a similar vein, some say the practice of bribery can be justified from an ethical point of view.

Even though most of the laws that apply to the practice of bribery indicate that the practice could not be justified legally, there is a significant difference between legal and ethical standard.

Justin Oakley, a moral philosopher, acknowledged that business ethicists have identified that there are several circumstances where bribery may be justified. For instance, since the practice of bribery is used as a means to influence a person to violate his or her institutional roles or duties, a bribery could be morally justified where these institutional roles or duties are themselves already morally unjustifiable.

However, it’s far easier to argue bribing public officials is not justified from an ethical point of view. It is generally assumed that bribery raises various ethical concerns: it’s an unfair tool used by people whose motive is to circumvent accepted legal rules of business competition to assure self-interested commercial gains. For example, Sweett Group was convicted under the Bribery Act for failing to prevent a large amount of money in bribes to be paid by a subsidiary, Cyril Sweett International, in order to win and retain a contract that related to the building of a £63m luxury hotel in Dubai. Therefore, in certain transactions, bribery could be used to disadvantage other companies unfairly.

More generally, the practice of bribing public officials undermines the theory of free market and market competition, in which the seller who offers the best services and products at the lowest price should win the sale.

Charles Mak is a recent law graduate from the University of Sussex.

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