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Values, Faith, and Corruption

As a participant in this year’s AEI Summer Honors Program, I had the opportunity to engage with a group of 20 other students in a course titled “International Economic Development: Why Institutions Matter,” which was taught by Dr. Stephen Smith from Hope College. Economic development was discussed, explored, and debated very thoroughly by other students who I would consider the brightest and most brilliant peers I have ever had the honor to study alongside. The diverse cohort of young, academically able, and passionate scholars, who I now can call my friends, helped create a learning environment that allowed us to explore the incredible number of paradigms necessary to respond to complex problems. However, the one problem that stumped us all was the issue of corruption and how to properly remedy it.

It is impossible to talk about international economic development without raising the issue of corruption. Corruption has been the primary source of so many ills that it is often difficult to grasp the full extent of corruption’s destructive power. Whether corruption is blatantly obvious, as it is in Russia and other countries, or more subtle, as it is in seemingly more transparent Western nations, the results are common and nearly universal. Mismanaged funds, poor-to-nonexistent law enforcement, violations of human rights, and mysterious deaths and arrests are only a few common signs and results of corruption in countries.

Corruption first rose its ugly head in our conversation over the role of institutions in economic development. It was clear to my peers and I that a strong and centralized government was essential in establishing the pastures of economic growth, particularly through a free enterprise system, even though we argued to what degree and through which system this could be best achieved. Without a functioning government with the ability to protect citizens’ rights, enforce the law, and ensure that everyone is given the opportunity to compete on a level playing field, any incentives to participate in a legal system are thwarted. The fact of the matter is that no one wants to play the game when the referees are so blatantly working against one team in support of another.

Consequently, those who would become entrepreneurs or have the motivation to invest in innovative solutions are discouraged from participating in the legal system and often turn to informal ways of conducting business, which have proven to be less productive and far less stable. The alternative is to be bullied, battered, and broken by not only one’s competitors, but also by the government whose responsibility is supposed to prevent the bullying, battering, and breaking of fair players in the free market.

So what do we do about corruption? It was obvious to us that corruption is a problem that must be dealt with early-on in a country’s economic development, but trying to cleanse corruption is a tricky business that has been tackled in several ways with mixed results.  Government purges are dangerous and often produce poor publicity. An intervention from a foreign power, such as the United States, is equally compromising to a local population’s confidence in a new government when it is founded by a foreign entity, not necessarily with the people’s consent.

Neither of these brief summaries presents a desirable solution, and the debate about whether it should be solved through a local movement’s responsibility to fight for justice, a foreign intervention, or a hybrid of the two was not discussed as much as I would have liked. And I believe that the reason corruption is so hard to deal with is not necessarily because it is a systemic problem, but rather because it is a human problem that has entrenched itself in a system.

What I mean by this is that corruption is the result of a problem as old as humanity. Corruption is an example of mankind’s imperfect soul and tendency to sin. Temptations come in all shapes and sizes, and some temptations are much harder to resist than others. The most alarming part of this is that the temptation to abuse power at the expense of others is much stronger than society wants to admit. Power offers the means to get what we want; thus, selfish individuals often pursue positions of power in order to obtain the pleasures and things they desire for themselves and their allies. It seems to oversimplify the problem, but political corruption is a distortion of the soul, which alludes to mankind’s fundamental propensity to sin.

What makes widespread corruption more distressing is that the personal sin of political corruption has embedded itself within the political systems of many developing nations. After colonial powers left, reluctantly or otherwise, there was a power vacuum which attracted many who saw it as a chance to seize power, either as a means to live luxuriously or as a way of fulfilling one’s egotistical sense of self-worth. Despite the myriad motivations of corrupt political leaders, the common threads through all of their actions are the sins of selfishness and greed. Unfortunately, leaders also set standards for their followers, and the standard of corruption easily trickles down from minster to minster and all the way to the local level. So how do we fight a spiritual problem that has come to dominate law and order? Perhaps this is where faith can take the stage.

Widespread domination of faith and religion as a policy is not necessarily the solution to corruption. However, I would make a strong argument that sound, humble leaders who have consistent moral compasses and are willing to make personal sacrifices are the best option for developing nations. Oftentimes, faith, or a lack of it, is the foundation of these leaders’ moral values. In short, political corruption is a sign of spiritual corruption; and therefore, may require a spiritual and faith-based solution that emerges from strong, moral leaders who place the needs of their people above their own. Certain temptations are always a risk for leaders, but it may be a necessary risk for the right leader.