Politics, Society and Corruption

Hardly a day passes here in Spain that we don’t hear news of yet another case of political corruption. Whether it’s the left-leaning PSOE or the right-leaning PP, representatives from both the country’s main political parties are regularly caught in unimaginable schemes of corruption.

With that depressing backdrop, it’s not surprising to see emerging far-left parties like Podemos gaining momentum, campaigning around a platform of anti-corruption.

But corruption is not a characteristic of one political party or another; it’s a characteristic of society. I’ve now lived periods of my life in four countries—the United States, France, Germany and Spain. In each of these countries, the level of corruption I observed among politicians was proportional to the level of corruption I observed in daily life among the general populace—and nowhere has that been higher than Spain.

I regularly see people committing acts of insurance fraud, dealing in undeclared cash (“dinero B”), lying on their tax declarations, fraudulently exploiting government subsidy programs, fraudulently exploiting unemployment benefits and stealing from their employers. Just a few weeks ago, when I informed the cashier at a grocery store that she’d returned too much change—I gave her a 20, not a 50—she thanked me and said, “Nobody here does that.” A friend here once told me, “In Spain the successful entrepreneur is not the hero. The hero is the guy who lands a job at El Corte Inglés and then immediately declare himself sick, ‘de baja’—getting paid for the next three months without having worked a day.”

I could write an entire book about the cases of corruption I’ve experienced. And every time, the individuals are able to find self-justifications—the insurance companies earn too much, the banks cheat us, the government is corrupt, the store makes enough profit on me, the boss just wants to exploit his employees. As Patricia Llaneza said to me on Twitter:

España está llena de gente como tu amigo que además te dirá “no, si teóricamente tienes razón, pero…”

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise to a dishonest society that their politicians—individuals who come from that same society—are also dishonest. And it’s a mistake to believe the issue can be addressed by voting for a political party on the basis of anti-corruption, since corruption itself is not a political issue.

I have no idea what leads one society to be more corrupt than another. But for any particular level of corruption, one could never hope to reduce political corruption by increasing the size of government—i.e. increasing the very scope and opportunity for corruption. Podemos’s plans would grow the budget of the state to support social programs that are economically unfeasible and would misalign public incentives in a way that would prove harmful to the country in the long term. There’s no doubt that the entrepreneurial and successful—those who can actually create jobs and grow a country’s economy—would leave.

And for sure, there would be corruption in proportion to the size of the opportunity. And with growing government programs, that opportunity would be greater than ever.

Spaniards would be better off studying the work of Milton Friedman, including real-life applications of his political and economic ideas as implemented in Estonia by Mart Laar, and then seeking politicians promising to move in that direction.

Agree? Disagree? What do you think?