Bribery: Ethical Failure and Competitive Failure

Last week saw the sentencing of Nazir Karigar to 3 years in jail, under Canada’s Corruption of Foreign Public Officials Act. This week, the RCMP have charged two Americans and one British businessman, demonstrating the force’s willingness to extend its reach to non-Canadians in its efforts to combat corruption. The three, all working with one branch or another of a company called Cryptometrics, are accused of having joined with Karigar in a failed attempt to bribe officials at Air India in order to land a contract to provide security to the airline.

Two words ought to stand out from that last bit, for anyone contemplating engaging in bribery: “failed attempt.” Karigar and his accused co-conspirators are in hot water for an act of bribery that didn’t even work. They didn’t get the contract. That, of course, is one of the big problems with bribery as a business strategy. It doesn’t always work. You may drop an envelope full of cash on a foreign official’s desk, without knowing that someone else has already dropped off an even fatter envelope. And given that bribery is illegal everywhere — even in places where it is reputed to be common — it’s not like you can go complaining to the police that you’ve been cheated. It’s really an extreme case of buyer beware.

The other words that should be front and centre, of course, are “jail time.” Karizar got jail time, and it seems likely that if these latest charges stick, prosecutors will be seeking jail time again. There’s no slap on the wrist here. No mere financial penalty levied against the faceless corporation involved. People who do business overseas have got to get it into their heads that anti-corruption laws are serious.

But back to the question of failure. Every time I hear about a case of bribery, I can’t help but think of failure. More specifically, it always seems to me that if you’re resorting to bribery, you’re essentially admitting failure. You’re opting to cheat because you know you can’t compete fairly. Your product isn’t good enough. Your marketing isn’t sharp enough. You’re not smart enough.

Yes, I know that won’t always be the case. I’m sure there are places where bribery is common enough that you “have to” engage in bribery to compete, and where the fact that you can’t do business honestly really isn’t your fault. But I think our presumption should favour honest business. There’s a difference between saying you lose some business by avoiding bribery and saying that you simply can’t survive without it. There are lots of honest businesses out there, getting by without bribery even in fairly corrupt markets. So we should presume in favour of honesty. We should presume that bribery just implies that you’re not good enough to compete fairly, on the strength of the services you provide or the product you make. It’s the best presumption, ethically, and it’s very likely just plain true.

1 comment so far

  1. Hobivola A. Rabearivelo on

    Nice article, Chris! I have commented on it with a little nuance in this post:

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