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Sunday, May 11, 2008
A Food For Thought Question.

Let's say you lived in a third world country, where the only way to get anything done was to pay a bribe to government officials. Imagine that this was known to be the only way for permits to be granted, business deals to be closed, roads or schools built, or even to prevent the tax authorities from paying you unfair and disproportionate attention.

Perhaps no different than the formal system of institutionalized bribes and payoffs that the Ottoman empire was built around.

We can even call it Baksheesh, if you want.

So, if you wanted to live your life normally, and you pay off the required officials, did you, as an average citizen, actually do something unethical?

And if this has become the accepted mode of behavior, is the politician or bureaucrat actually guilty of unethical behavior too?


Batya said...

Olmert and Talansky
have put a whole new spin on things.

Max Power said...

All this time I thought that was just another tax that we paid for the honor of living here, I've heard it called the screwU tax.

Anonymous said...

Bribery is against the Torah if one person does it or even if a whole nation does it.

There are Talmudic stories of Judges not wanting to accept gifts and if he did accept a gift, he would not litigate the case that his gift-giver was in.

Let’s face it, this whole case with Olmert/Talansky is corrupt.


JoeSettler said...

I'm not talking about paying off judges. I'm talking about baksheesh to help grease the oils that make things happen.

The question is, if this is part and parcel of a culture, is it really unethical to contribute (even if it is illegal).

JoeSettler said...

In the same light, is it unethical to participate in the "black market" (I'm not talking about illicit substances like hard drugs, but perhaps trading dollars before that became legal), when perhaps that is what keeps the economy actually afloat in a socialistic and government constricted economy?

Renegade said...

I think there are (at least) 2 different types of bribes.

1. the type that you seem to be discussing here, where you need to pay a little extra anytime you want to get something done. e.g. the government is supposed to grant you that permit regardless, you just want it next week instead of next year so you pay a little extra.

2. you're paying off a government official for something you wouldn't -and probably shouldn't- be getting otherwise. e.g. you put in a bid for a government contract, another company puts in a better bid which should be the winner, so you pay a government official a million dollars to chose yours over the more deserving one.

I'm not sure 1 is unethical (you could just think of it as a slightly higher cost of living / doing business)
I would say #2 is definitely unethical.

Risa said...

How can it be ethical to commit a crime? Or are you saying that if enough people are doing it then it's not so bad?
Wrong is wrong and by any other name is still wrong.

Renegade said...


are you saying that wrong and right are defined by legal and illegal?

just because something is illegal that doesnt mean it's inherently wrong or unethical. and being legal doesnt make something right or ethical.

for example cheating on your taxes. definitely illegal, not necessarily wrong or unethical.

or on the other hand abortion. it may be legal but that doesn't make it right or ethical.

in short: in my opinion if a law is unethical it would not be unethical to break that law. (of course you might go to jail for it, but that doesn't mean it's wrong)

Lurker said...

If an entire society (literally) becomes totally run by criminals, and the original authorities lose their power completely -- then the original authorities can no longer be considered a "government" at all. The parties once called "criminals" who hold the actual authority become the new "government" for all intents and purposes (including legal and moral ones), and their rules become the new law. This has actually happened countless times over the course of history.

This situation was portrayed in a very pointed and amusing way in the Star Trek episode "A Piece of the Action", in which an entire planet adopted the rules and culture of 1930's gangland Chicago, and the only authorities that existed were the various regional "bosses".

Lurker said...

Risa: How can it be ethical to commit a crime? Or are you saying that if enough people are doing it then it's not so bad?

Yes, I am saying exactly that. See my comment above. If you disagree, then you would have to regard nearly every society on Earth as being run by criminals. E.g., in America prior to 1776, the British were the government and the revolutionaries were criminals. According to you, the fact that the "criminals" managed to take over by force, while the "government" lost its grip on power, is irrelevant. All Americans are comitting a crime by not paying taxes to the British throne. In reality, of course, once enough people had switched their loyalties to the side of the "criminals", the "criminals" became the legitimate authorities in America, and it was no longer unethical to pay taxes to them instead of to the erstwhile government. In other words: If enough people are doing it then it's not so bad.

Risa: Wrong is wrong and by any other name is still wrong.

That is overly simplistic. In reality, "right" and "wrong" are defined by those who hold power. And those who hold power sometimes change.

Lurker said...

Risa -- here is a question for you: If you live in a society where the government is so weak that all goods and services are in the hands of the "black market", what would you do in order to feed yourself and your family? Buying food on the black market is technically illegal, according to the authorities. But there is no other way to procure food, since there are no more "legitimate" food vendors. Will you choose to starve?

This is not just a meaningless hypothetical question: There are many places in the world where the situation I just described is the prevailing state of affairs.

JoeSettler said...

The Expulsion was questionably legal, but clearly unethical. Fighting the expulsion was definitely illegal, but clearly ethical.

During one of my attempts at bypassing the Gaza interdiction, I had to confront a soldier who told me to go back, that he can't let me through, and even if he does let me through, the cop just ahead will arrest me.

I told him to call the cop, because I will not turn around and go home knowing for the rest of my life that I turned around and did nothing to fight this evil decree.

He thought about what I said and helped us sneak past.

What he did was illegal and completely ethical.

JoeSettler said...

But my real question is more on the finance side.

Peres after all seems to get money left and right (or left and lefter actually). There are major questions regarding his finances along with his relationship with the Peres Peace Center - yet even his refusal to undergo a standard government audit hardly makes a blip in the news. (He finally did agree comply, but with various restrictions attached).

Peres was investigated 2 years ago for possible campaign financing irregularities ($320,000 received from board members of the Peres Peace Center). He obviously didn’t get any jail time, unlike other politicians who played with campaign financing, but it begs the question (actually a whole bunch of questions).

So if the law is selectively applied, or if everyone is doing it, maybe it is OK. Ot how can you know that it isn’t OK, if it is OK for some people.

Another interesting document I found mentioned this:

The last five prime ministers were investigated for unethical behavior: Shimon Peres, Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon for illegal donations to their election campaigns; Benjamin Netanyahu for accepting expensive gifts and abusing state property; and Ehud Olmert for bribes in real estate deals, and for giving government jobs to cronies. Several former ministers, at least 10 mayors, senior government officials, and members of parliament are under various investigations.

Nir Gilad, a former director general of the Treasury, oversaw a massive privatization of public enterprises, including the sale of the national refinery to Ofer brothers (one the five wealthiest families in Israel). The state lost $120 million in the course of this transaction. Nir Gilad later became deputy Director General of Ofer brothers and afterwards, Director General.

Petty corruption is required for driver’s license, building permits, hearing with tax offices, courts, etc.

What is interesting in this document is how extensive bribery is worldwide (and how much this organization thinks is required in Israel for normal life to move forward).

Obviously, if you look at the Nir Gilad example, we the people lost because of bribery. But if the system requires it on the low level for day-to-day stuff, then obviously it requires/expects it on the top level too.

Another interesting point is the far too porous border between politics and business in this small country. Isn't that open to bribery too, yet it is completely accepted?

JoeSettler said...

Does it comes down to every man for himself?

And should I have gone into politics to become a big businessman?

ariel said...

I would think (and I think halacha thinks) that a law which is not enforced does not count as a law.

However, if the law is somewhat enforced and it's a basically ethical law and by breaking it you are contributing to the enforcement breaking down altogether - that would be problematic.

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