Corruption Abroad and at Home Compared

The cop stops you for what he says is a traffic violation. But he doesn’t write you a ticket. Instead, he sizes up you up-- the clothes you are wearing, the make of your car, your passport and documents, making sure, lest he lose his job, that you have no connections or business with local big-shots; and on the basis of his snap assessment, refined through much experience, he figures that you are good for, say, a $50 extortion, to be paid to him on the spot, preferably in American dollars or Euros, his swagger and conspicuous sidearm or Ak-47 slung on his shoulder telling you in no uncertain terms that he and he alone is the law in this matter, and that you either pay him off or suffer whatever consequences he chooses. If you don’t happen to be carrying enough cash that day, maybe your wrist watch and jewelry might do, if he hasn’t already insisted on that as well. So you pay up and drive on, chalking up the extortion to the cost of venturing into so-called “developing world.”

Here in America that kind of corruption, though it exists, is very rare. That our great democracy is a nation of laws, not of men, is indisputable. Consider, for instance, the strict traffic ordinances of the college town where I reside in North Carolina. The speed-limit here is 25 miles per hour. Exceed the limit, however slightly, and a police cruiser, of which there are many lurking about, allegedly to protect you from harm, will pull you over. An armed but well-mannered uniformed officer will emerge from the cruiser, ask to see your driver’s license and vehicle registration and, if both documents are in order and nothing more serious is involved , the officer will write you a ticket for the speeding violation, $25, plus another $100 for something vaguely called “court costs.”

The instructions on the ticket explain that you have 30 days to challenge the fine in court or to pay it by mail. As most violators, you would likely opt for the latter, as arguing the case in court would be too costly in time lost from your regular business, and probably to no avail, anyway. Traffic judges almost always side with ticket-issuing cops, major contributors, along with tax collectors, to the town’s coffers. So you decide to tighten your belt a bit and mail the $125, in two weeks maybe, when you can better afford it.

But then, the very next day, you receive an email or phone call from a lawyer saying that for $300 he can get the judge to dismiss your violation and expunge it from the public record. The offer may at first sound like bad deal, $300 being more than twice the $125 fine, but, on second thought you figure that it would be worth it, for a speeding fine might cause your auto insurance company to brand you an unsafe driver and raise your premium accordingly. The average yearly premium for normal drivers in North Carolina in 2011 was $1,164. A speeding fine could jack that up to $2,000, and needless to say, more than one fine for speeding or another other moving violations could put a huge dent on your budget. The judge, moreover, might sentence you to attend a remedial driving school, at a cost of another $400 or $500. So you pay the lawyer $300 to fix your ticket, $125 of which will presumably go to the court and the rest into the lawyer’s pocket.

Other frequently ticketed violations in my town are passing on the right in an unmarked lane, even if there is ample room and the vehicle in front of you is stopped or well in the process of making a left turn, and driving without your seat belt buckled, a big moneymaker. The cop issuing the ticket for this violation will treat you to a pro forma lecture explaining that you should feel grateful that the police department is so concern about your safety.

Scroll back now to the $50 extortion by the traffic cop in the underdeveloped country on the other side of the world and compare. Should you refuse to pay him the $50, he could, of course, threaten to beat you up or shoot you, but that would highly unlikely. Nor is he likely to compound your car or jail you, because that would mean sharing your car and you with other, more powerful extortionists who might want to take it all. What the cop would probably do is take your car keys and delay you until you give in, or, seeing that by wasting so much time with you he is missing opportunities to prey on more docile foreigners, he lets you go. And like the traffic cop on the street, so will the host of bureaucrats, clerks and others whose stamps and documents you need to conduct your business or simply move around will be holding out their hand for their cut.

So the question here arises: Is that that informal, arbitrary third-world corruption in the final analysis any worse than the formal, legalized, institutionalized schemes of our traffic courts, our IRS, local tax collectors, real estate lawyers, health insurance companies, credit card lenders and others dedicated to relieve us from a goodly share of our hard-earned money without providing much of real value in return? You be the judge.

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