Value Chains

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“Each tells the tale as it went for him at the fair” says a popular old refrain. The same is true for corruption, access to justice and the quality of government. It is not in vain, as GK Chesterton once wrote, that “the poor have sometimes objected to being governed badly, the rich have always objected to being governed at all”. The perspective is important: each citizen finds himself in a distinct place on the social, political and economic value chain in society and this place confers upon him a greater or lesser capacity to influence his own destiny or that of the society. Inevitably, these differences translate into distinct social behaviors. Corruption emanates precisely from these differences and manifests itself in the strangest ways.

Corruption, together with impunity, is one of the ills that the major part of the population identifies as at the heart of our problems. In conversations, tweets or serious discussions, it is impossible to elucidate the generalized perception of the endemic ills to which the population objects and that are, however, immovable, a permanent part of the scenario. At the same time, these same individuals who object not infrequently resort to this self-same corruption to resolve a problem or to confront an everyday situation. Is this a contradiction?

A similar situation can be observed in the way that the application of the law is deliberated. For some the central problem lies in the unwillingness, or inability, of the authority to make the existing regulations stick and, even, in their propensity to modify the laws in order not to have to enforce them. For others, the laws are designed to benefit the powerful and to preserve their interests. Can one and the same law possess these two characteristics, be inherently contradictory?

For its part, the authority, of any type and level, confronts daily realities that become inexorable and defining. Undoubtedly, some governments prefer to privilege antagonistic and even violent groups because of their own political or ideological motivations, but the majority knows that enforcement of the law is often impossible in the terms under which the regulations establish it. The case is not infrequent of a municipal president or a state governor who employs public force as established by the law, only to find himself with a political conflict of enormous scope due to his acting: the original matter shifts to second place and the problem the society identifies as the “real” one ends up being the “repression” or the violence with which the governor acted. John le Carré said it very well in one of his novels: “All power corrupts but some must govern”. How, then, to govern under conditions like these?

There is no doubt that the country is experiencing moments of political and social effervescence that project a society in conflict with itself but also, returning to the original theme, rights and realities are disproportionately biased in favor of those at the pinnacle of the power value chain. The corruption -impunity- that characterizes the way authorities, some companies and criminals incur are nothing other than the reflection of the excessive differences of power and access to same in this chain.

Corruption is many simultaneous things. In some instances it is the consequence, in others the symptom and, for many, a means to the solution of their problems. It depends on the position on the “value chain” of power where one finds himself. For the run-of-the-mill citizen, corruption is the solution to the authority’s excessive discretional power: a bribe –small or large- allows the citizen to wriggle free from an inspector, a traffic officer or a bureaucrat whose powers are so vast that this ends up being a functional solution. Corruption is symptomatic of a festering political system characterized by the existence of so many laws and rules that confer such broad powers on the authority that the potential for abuse is immense and permanent.

In a word, corruption derives from the existence of such generalized, imprecise and undefined laws and regulations that they open vast spaces of discretional attributions, conferring excessive power –arbitrary- on the authority, at all levels. This excess of authority translates into diverse social evils: inequity in the application of the law, the possibility of rewarding some and punishing others employing the same statute, whether they be union or company bosses or individuals. It translates into impunity -another form of corruption- for those wielding power.

This context is what makes it possible for the “de facto powers” to be nourished and to grow, for delinquents and criminals to appropriate the streets, highways or border crossings and for there to exist an environment of permanent uncertainty regarding people’s security and that of their rights and property. In the country, the most commonplace of inspectors or their peers in other ambits possess such enormous authority that they can decide on the opening or closing of a company or whether a person ends up in jail. In similar fashion, the powers of the regulatory entities are so vast that they can decide on things at will. So much arbitrary power makes it impossible to have a reliable and credible authority. Instead of having clear guidelines, the authority possesses great latitude, opening spaces of enormous impunity, thus arbitrary and illegitimate, and also dysfunctional. These excesses in turn translate into environments that facilitate the entrenchment of monopolistic practices, the taking of buildings or roads and violence. Or passing ludicrous laws. Recognition is key to observing that these elements comprise distinct sides of the same coin.

Under these circumstances, it would be absurd to pretend that more of the same type of regulations, laws or entities could end corruption: laws have consequences. What Mexico requires is to delimit the boundaries of the powers that the laws grant, open spaces of competition in all ambits, eliminate restrictions on trade and imports and, in a word, create conditions so that no one –government, enterprises, unions, political parties- would entertain the possibility of accumulating so much power or the capacity for imposition as happens now. When the playing field of this “power value chain” is more level, less biased and more equitable, the country could flourish.

Corruption and impunity, twin sisters, are the product of our political reality that takes root in laws and regulations. The reality will change when the game preserves from which these emanate are attacked, when bureaucratic faculties are well defined and delimited, eliminating arbitrariness, the mother of all corruption and impunity.

The electoral bill just passed by the Senate is a jewel of incentives for corruption and impunity. It would be desirable that it be dismissed outright by the Congress. If this does not happen, the citizenship better hope that the energy reform (that was exchanged for the electoral bill) at least justifies such an arbitrary law and the anti-democratic features it comes associated with.

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Luis Rubio

Luis Rubio

He is a contributing editor of Reforma and his analyses and opinions often appear in major newspapers and journals in Mexico, the US and Europe (New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, International Herald Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, National Public Radio).