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Corruption – An Enlightened Self-Interest?

By Ravi Subramanian

More than a hundred years ago, our profession found legitimacy through two channels. The first was as a solution to fight the corrupt spoils system in government. The second was through President Woodrow Wilson.

During his terms in office, President Wilson was instrumental in signing significant legislation to address corruption like the Underwood Tariff, the Federal Reserve Act and the Clayton Antitrust Act. However, a few years before the end of his second term, he succumbed to illness resulting from strokes. His death resulted in the 25th amendment to the Constitution, which deals with presidential disability and succession. However, his refusal to compromise on the Treaty of Versailles after the First World was voted as the fourth worst blunder in a 2006 survey of presidential historians organized by the University of Louisville’s McConnell Center.

ravi 1Subsequent to World Wars I and II, 20th century politicians waged wars on drugs, poverty, homelessness and other causes of human suffering. Corruption has suffered the same limited success as these wars, probably because we keep fighting it or because we forget that it is as complex as we are. Alternatively, is it because we often think we are fighting corruption in other people but seem to forget that the struggle is within each one of us? How many times have we read or watched the news and said, “Can you believe this?” as though corruption only applied to someone else. We are quick to justify our thoughts, behaviors, actions and habits and absolve ourselves.

The trifecta of our modi operandi is often selective focus, confirmation bias and self-interest. Behavioral science researchers like Nobel Laureate, Daniel Kahneman have tackled these subjects and offer valuable guidance. The premise of Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow, is that it is easier to recognize other people’s mistakes than our own. According to Kahneman, confirmation bias has primarily to do with cognition. Kahneman states that biases cannot always be avoided because System 2—which is the part of the mind that “allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it” like complex computations or those tasks “associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice and concentration,” – may have no clue on how to handle them. Apparently, System 1 “operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control.” Therefore, when biases or errors of intuitive thought occur automatically they are often difficult to prevent. Kahneman says that such “errors can be prevented only by enhanced monitoring and effortful activity of System 2.” Questioning and evaluating every instance of System 1 would not only be “impossibly tedious” but also counterproductive for “making routine decisions.” Kahneman argues that the best we can do is learn to recognize the potential for pitfalls well in advance and work hard to avoid significant mistakes.

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As Dan Ariely states in his book Predictably Irrational, we often believe that we are capable of making the appropriate decision for ourselves and this belief clouds our judgment and decision-making because our reasoning abilities are imperfect. Ariely argues that “recognizing where we depart from the ideal is an important part of the quest to truly understand ourselves, and one that promises many practical benefits.” He posits that these “irrational behaviors” are “neither random nor senseless,” but “systematic and predictable.”

Robert Wright, in his book Nonzero, the Logic of Human Destiny, says that we are instinctively wary. It does not help that we are constantly bombarded with spam emails, dubious offers, false advertising and examples of bad behavior on the news, TV shows, social media and the Internet. Wright states there are two reasons – the free rider and the cheat—that “have given people an innate tendency to monitor the contributions of others, whether consciously or unconsciously.” Therefore, the wariness is vital to “try to get the best deal possible.” Wright argues that the “instinctively enlightened self-interest is the seed that has grown into modern society.” Along the same lines, Ariely confirms that “we’ve become more distrustful – not only of those who are trying to swindle us, but of everyone.”

ravi 3Acting in our self-interest and getting into trouble is not new, but the fact that we continue to face the consequences, misunderstand the reality and often repeat the same mistakes seem to suggest that we are in a Pavlovian loop or just do not understand how to learn from our mistakes and the mistakes of others. We also forget that when we act selfishly, trust erodes and everyone ends up losing. The public good of trust or other resources become unsustainable when we act in our self-interest. Ariely states that every year:

  • The retail industry loses $16 billion to customers who buy clothes, wear them and return the secondhand clothes for a full refund.
  • Individuals add a bogus $24 billion to their claims of property losses according to the insurance industry.
  • The IRS estimates a loss of $350 billion, representing the gap between what people should pay in taxes and what they do pay.
  • Employees’ theft and fraud at the workplace are estimated at about $600 billion.

Organizations and companies are no different.

All this sounds hopeless, but we know there are numerous examples of how we tend to trust each other, even when the evolutionary, scientific and behavioral odds are against us. There are also many examples of when public trust was lost and restored through proactively addressing complaints, transparency, accountability, sacrifice and in Ariely’s words through “vulnerability,” where consumers can talk freely with organizations about “products and services, warts and all.” It is often harder to escape the consequences of dishonorable actions when we publicly pronounce our commitment to behave in a trustworthy manner. Maybe our war cry should be, “We value your trust and will not squander it!”


Ravi Subramanian has worked for public and private sector organizations for the past 30 years. Currently, he is a Deputy Administrative Officer at the Santa Clara Valley Water District. He can be reached at [email protected] 

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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