Honey and Poison: On Corruption

I For as long as human beings have had governments, they have worried about public corruption. The Hebrew Bible warns repeatedly that those in authority — especially judges — should not take bribes, “for bribes blind the clear-sighted and upset the pleas of those in the right.” The Arthashastra, a third-century Indian text on the art of statecraft, cautioned that just as one cannot avoid “tasting honey or poison on the tip of the tongue,” government officials will inevitably be tempted to steal public money for themselves. Countless other examples — from classical Greece and Rome to Imperial China to the Islamic empires of the Near East — testify to the pervasiveness of public corruption across cultures and across time. Indeed, from the ancient world up through today, corruption has been a central concern of statesmen, philosophers, and journalists — and the undoing of powerful figures and the catalyst for major reform movements. Anxiety over corruption also figures prominently in culture across the centuries — from Shakespeare’s Brutus accusing his friend Cassius of having “an itching palm, to sell and mart your offices for gold to undeservers” to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Alexander Hamilton rapping that “corruption’s such an old song that we can sing along in harmony.” And yet the problem of corruption, for all its ubiquity, is often neglected. Perhaps most strikingly, for a very long time the international development community — a shorthand term for the various government agencies, multilateral institutions, and non-governmental organizations focused on improving the well-being and opportunities of the residents of poorer countries — paid scant attention to corruption. This may have been due in part to the belief that corruption, while immoral and unjust, was only marginally relevant to economic development. The comparative lack of attention to corruption was also related to concerns about

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