Or, Making Corruption Work for Us
(Note: Apologies for those who were expecting one of my usual every two weeks updates - “Life” got in the way, and is continuing to do so. I will try to stick to ~2 weeks for major essays, but reserve the right to publish “when its done” rather than rushing content out.)
Don Winslow, The Force
(Disclaimer: I do not know whether Winslow’s novel is in any way an accurate picture of how corrupt the police, courts, and city bureaucracy are in New York City.)
NYPD Detective Sergeant Dennis Malone, the protagonist of Don Winslow’s crime epic The Force, is a corrupt cop. He and his partners on the North Manhattan narcotics squad steal cash from drug busts before it is entered into evidence, plant weapons on dealers they arrest to pressure them into giving up information on their bosses, and make live and let live arrangements with organized crime groups that deal in prostitution, gambling, and loansharking. Like most corruption, this is not merely a case of a few “bad apples.” The New York City portrayed by Winslow is corrupt from top to bottom.
Malone and his partners’ corrupt acts are enabled, encouraged, and even required by the system they work within. A rite of passage for new patrol officers is accepting cash from a fellow officer as a ‘share’ of a major bust in the precinct, a way to demonstrate trustworthiness. Malone and his fellow officers knowingly, with winking acknowledgement and sometimes outright encouragement from prosecutors, perjure themselves in court to convict criminals, using juries’ respect for a “policeman’s word of honour.” They also accept instruction from on high to focus on or ignore certain criminal organizations, territories, or types of crime. Malone himself, as a senior detective, enjoys the privilege of delivering cash payments to prosecutors from criminal lawyers to reduce or suspend charges against suspects, for which he pockets a transaction fee.
The ultimate driver of the corruption in the novel, its enabler and raison d’etre, is a superior law to the New York State criminal code. While Malone and his fellow officers are expected to (1) enforce the law and (2) deter crime, they understand that their true law is to minimize and control chaos, specifically violence connected with the drug trade. Illicit drug abuse is fine as long as it is localized and does not fill up hospital emergency rooms and morgues heroin from bloody turf battles between gangs. Prostitution, illegal gambling, racketeering, and other crimes take place behind closed doors, and are thus not contributing to visible chaos, and not a concern of the police. Chaos is bad because it endangers the public, reduces property values, and hurts the electoral chances of city councillors, the mayor, and the distract attorney. Whatever keeps chaos down is good, whatever promotes it is bad.
Winslow’s novel, in addition to being a thrilling read, provides an excellent portrait of corruption and how it works: that it is almost always systemic, becomes the “cost of doing business” where it exists, is difficult to eradicate, and maintains a status quo that is mostly beneficial to all who take part. The police violate their oaths to uphold the law and put themselves at risk from Internal Affairs investigations, but are allowed to help themselves to money above and beyond their salaries, benefits, and pensions. Prosecutors encourage and enable perjury, but get to boost their own careers through high conviction rates and do get the very worst criminals1 off the street. City politicians knowingly allow the drug trade to thrive, but are able to harvest its wealth in campaign contributions and delivering public safety. Criminals, provided they do not become too violent, get to conduct their business undisturbed except for occasional taxation by the police. And drug addicts get their drugs, I guess.
More than just a portrait of a corrupt system, Winslow’s novel is a character study of how corruption works in the individual human soul. Malone eases his conscience with the fact that, though corrupt, he does do good police work: he arrests or kills the worst offenders, and can argue to himself that his team preserves peace and order in a city of millions, large segments of whom would be at each others throats without the restraining hand of the police. He also believes he has a code, a set of limits on what he will do. Over the course of the book he blows through each and every one of them.
When the FBI leans on him, with incontrovertible evidence of his corruption, he agrees to wear a recording device (a “wire”) to help them bring cases against corrupt judges and prosecutors. But he won’t turn on his fellow police officers.
Then the FBI increase the pressure and he does. But he won’t rat on his partners.
And then he does. Like the proverbial frog in the slowly heating pot (which is totally untrue - amphibians are smarter than that - but a good image), each step is as easy as the one before it. His final turning on his partners, and the fallout from that, were contained in his first corrupt act as a new police officer. It’s a strong argument for moral absolutism: even if steps 1, 2, and 3 are ‘victimless’ (if you believe people cannot crimes against their own soul and character), they grease the slide to steps 4, 5, and 6.
But What Has Corruption Ever Done For Us?
Winslow’s novel got me thinking a lot about corruption: what it is, why it exists, and whether we could make it work for us. Consider the following some highly lateral thinking: I’m not recommending it (see above about the benefits of moral absolutism), I just want people to think more about it.2
The classic case of corruption is the diversion of a person or thing away from what it should be doing. There is a conceptual link between the idea of corruption in natural things, the decay of diseased and dead things into their base elements, and human corruption - the judge who lets money rather than the law and justice decide the verdict in the case before him, the police officer who takes a bribe to let someone out of a parking ticket, the academic who uses their position to advance a political cause rather than scholarship. We have a concept of what something should be doing - growing, upholding the law - and what it is doing - putrefying, letting the guilty go free.
Starting with human nature: its a sad fact that if stealing is (a) easy to do, (b) unlikely to be found out, and (c) perceived to be common, then many people, perhaps most, will steal. Charlie Munger observed that the genius of the cash machine is not that it automatically calculates change and records sales. Its real purpose is that it makes it much harder for employees to steal. People in positions of authority, with access to public funds and limited accountability, will in all likelihood turn those funds to their own use. Worse, once they’ve started, they’ll make participation in the theft part of being an employee of their organization. The noncorrupt won’t be hired, or won’t stay long in their jobs.
Sadly, there are few fixes as easy and convenient as cash machines when it comes to official corruption. People who steal on the job tend to have both low intelligence and ambition, and cannot be bothered to figure out how to tamper with the cash machine to disguise their theft. People in positions of authority, of with high intelligence and lots of ambition, are very capable of warping systems of control to suit them.
Rather than fighting corruption, what if we embraced it, actively encourage corruption, for the public good. Consider anthropogenic climate change: why not pay the leaders of developing countries to stymie their own peoples economic growth to protect the planet? The Chinese Communist Party is probably corrupt enough to do this. You’d have to bribe a lot of people, but it would definitely be less than the cost of mitigating droughts, sea-level rises, and mass migrations.
Or consider the corruption of foreign aid, where heads of state and government employees divert funds and resources meant to improve the lives of their people, or demand bribes to perform their duties? Just pay them money directly to do their jobs rather than tying the money to specific projects “for the people.” I’ll leave aside the issue of how foreign aid spending is often a barely hidden supplement to domestic industry.
If I ran a the counterintelligence arm of a espionage service, I’d want to periodically apply excess financial, professional, and social pressure to other service employees. Then I’d approach them with fake offers to sell intelligence to foreign governments. The idea would be not to entrap the employee or to charge them criminally, but to corrupt them preemptively, and use them to ensnare others and clean up the organization before a rival foreign intelligence service tries to turn them.
The obvious problem with all of the above is that corruption breeds corruption. If you’re paying someone to steal secrets for you, they’re much more likely to lie to you and cheat you about what they’re doing than an honest person you tricked into revealing secrets. The same goes for paying officials of foreign governments to do their jobs - they’ll likely spend some of their newfound wealth finding ways to pretend to do what you ask, all while continuing to collect bribes. And governments that can be bribed to reduce economic growth are also likely to lie about their efforts to reduce carbon emissions.
Regrettably, there seems to be no remedy to corruption except character and personal honour - the steadfast refusal to take bribes or use their powers for public gain because it’s “not the thing done/not the kind of person I am.” There is no reliable psychometric test for that, at least not one that couldn’t be gamed by the motivated. Though that might be a way - the people who score perfectly on your virtue test are way more likely to be false positives than to actually be modern day saints.
Which pretty much means those too violent, psychotic, or generally antisocial to play by the rules - the superior law of chaos minimization extends no protection to rapists, child molesters, armed robbers, or any other
Of course, thinking about doing illegal and corrupt things may be step (1) on the way to doing them. As Matthew Henry observed of Eve and the serpent in the Garden, all sin starts first with the mere thought of doing so, then the imagining of what it would be like, which creates the desire, which leads to the act.