Bribery, Legal Clarity, and Lame Excuses

Bribery is quite probably among the very oldest of unethical business practices, right up there with short-changing your customers and adulterating your products. Many modern economies have recognized that bribery has no place in a fair and efficient market, and have rightly taken action to prohibit what is widely acknowledged to be a pernicious practice. But not everyone is consistently appreciative of legislative efforts at curbing bribery. Take the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, for example. To see why the Chamber isn’t altogether happy about the U.S. government’s anti-bribery efforts, see this story from the Washington Post’s David S. Hilzenrath: “Quandary for U.S. companies: Whom to bribe?”

American companies doing business abroad have a problem: They don’t know whom to bribe.

Federal law prohibits the bribery of some people but not others. And the business world argues that the rules of the road are not clear. One guy’s bribe, as it turns out, is another guy’s cost of doing business….

A few points:

1) In principle, at least, bribery is an ethical no-brainer. There really is no pro-bribery point of view. Some may argue that it’s a necessary evil, something that companies are forced into by practical considerations in some countries. But that’s at least nominally different from thinking that bribery is ethically OK. Bribery involves inducing someone to violate a duty of loyal service, and it diverts resources that ought to go to more legitimate ends. And besides, bribery is a zero-sum game, which means that by definition the business community as a whole cannot win.

2) The Chamber’s basic plea, here, is an entirely reasonable one: the law does need to be clear. One fundamental element of the rule of law is the notion that citizens (and, derivatively, corporations) must be able to know what the law requires of them. Ignorance is no excuse, but uncertainty may be, at least when lack of certainty is the legislator’s fault. In other words, if the citizen is ignorant of the law, shame on the citizen. But if the law is opaque, shame on the state.

3) If the law really is unclear in dangerous ways, the evidence for that is remarkably thin. The Chamber cites just one anecdote, quite possibly apocryphal, about a company that nearly got prosecuted for a trivial non-offence (paying for a bureaucrat’s taxi ride). We only have Hilzenrath’s account to work with, here, but clearly if there’s a real issue here the Chamber needs to do a better job of making the case.

4) There are just two kinds of situations in which bribery seems truly necessary, and neither of them reflects well on the businesses involved. One is when you’re operating in a context where bribery truly is endemic, and you need to engage in bribery just to keep up. The number of places where that’s true is likely exaggerated. And besides, that need is a lousy excuse, frankly, and any self-respecting businessperson should think seriously about why they want to do business at all in such places. The other situation, of course, in which bribery seems like a true business necessity is one in which you simply aren’t good enough at what you do to compete effectively without doing things you know to be wrong.

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