The Psychology of Corruption: Kleptocracy vs. Democracy

Greed did not used to be good or right.

Posted Oct 25, 2020

For over a decade, Sarah Chayes studied and fought corruption in different countries like Afghanistan. Though she made good efforts, the corruption was difficult if not impossible to eradicate. She turned her eye to the USA when she noticed similar patterns of corruption.

In her book, On Corruption in America, she helps the reader get a handle on the behemoth that is corruption with different historical myths and legends. She calls corruption a hydra—the mythical creature with multiple independent, regrowing heads that Hercules had difficulty slaying. Then she gives several anchors, including King Midas and Jesus.

She starts with the King Midas myth as an illustration of the mindset driving corruption. It is a story told by many storytellers. As a reward for a good deed, King Midas was given one wish by the god Dionysius. Midas’ wish was that everything he touched would turn to gold. At first, he was thrilled as he reached for a possession and it immediately turned into a lump of gold. But when he sat down to eat, he found that the food and liquids that touched his lips also turned into gold. He then realized his folly. In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s telling of the tale, Midas’ daughter runs over to try to comfort him, then becoming a lump of gold herself.

Chayes tells the story of Jesus in the Temple where he becomes angry because the ritual of shared participating in animal sacrifice had become a corrupt, money-making system in which the poor could not participate so they were not welcome in the community. She brings up Aristotle’s distinction between natural and unnatural wealth. Natural wealth comprises what is needed to have a good life such as adequate food, clothing, and what is needed for self-sufficiency. Unnatural wealth is concerned with collecting money and its danger is that there is no getting enough. It is this mindset that corrupts individuals.

Chayes notes: “Corruption is as old as government. No period in history is free of bribe-taking, sweetheart deals between public officials and their pals in business—or even joint ventures without-and-out criminality.” (Chayes, 2020, p. 59)

But contemporary corruption is deeper and wider. Chayes’ book documents the Midas infection all over the world, due to the shift away from "fairness for all" to a "selfishness is good." She says: “The Midas disease was like one of those highly contagious and rapidly mutating viruses. Once it was transmitted, instilling unlimited moneymaking as a virtue around the globe, it quickly morphed into an epidemic of corruption” (Chayes, 2020, p. 59).

Chayes wants the reader to understand that corruption today is a result of networks — not single persons, but networks — that include disparate segments of society, such as law enforcement, politicians, regulators, entrepreneurs, and criminals. She finds corruption at the root of most crises globally. For years, Chayes observed these networks in countries around the world and turned her eyes to the US when she started to notice similar patterns of behavior. All have the same goal—to make money no matter the cost to others.

“And when practices that benefit kleptocratic networks are mainstreamed, those networks take it as an invitation to keep pushing. In a race with no finish line, their members can never be satisfied. Once one set of values and advantages has been normalized, they seek more.” p. 266)

In the USA, with the advances in civil rights that occurred rapidly in the 1960s, conservatives and business leaders became worried. Lewis Powell, before he was appointed to the Supreme Court, wrote a now-famous memo, “Attack on the American Free Enterprise System,” outlining what needed to be done to push against the progressive wave. The US Chamber of Commerce “implemented it like a military campaign” (Chayes, 2020, p. 120).

The “Powell Memo” provided specific suggestions of a sustained, well-funded effort to influence public opinion and to dominate media, textbooks, scholarly journals, university teaching, and the justice system by populating them with conservative-minded people who would favor corporate and wealthy interests. Over the following decades, billionaires like Charles Koch poured money into a variety of institutes and efforts.

Starting with the deregulation of Savings and Loans starting in 1980s and later government bailouts,

“a new business model was born: bankruptcy for profit. This has become a prevailing business model in the United States, whereby the persons most highly rewarded is he who extracts the maximum current value out of his enterprise and then moves on—leaving the wreckage, the salted earth, behind” (Chayes, 2020, p. 161).

The wealthy organized to take back power after the turbulent 1960s through an organized long game that Lewis Powell first outlined in 1972. A prominent tactic is to label the behavior of corporations and the wealthy as a matter of freedom, and regulation as government interference in that freedom.

As noted in the previous post, the 1930s-1980s increased government regulation of business; for example, to keep them from dumping toxins into waterways and selling dangerous products, among other consumer and citizen protection efforts. The goal of movement conservatism was to reverse these regulatory moves and decry them as “special interests” or un-American. Another tactic is to put industry-friendly people in government oversight agencies in order to weaken or reverse their mandates.

Chayes uses Midas to represent the disease that drove the 19th-century Gilded Age when the rich could never get enough. But it has been around much longer. These kinds of socially destructive behaviors, which Chayes calls “What the f*** freedom,” are reflective of the wetiko (Algonquin) concept of “the disease of aggression against other living things and, more precisely, the disease of the consuming of other creatures’ lives and possessions” (Forbes, 2008, p. xvi). Native American groups also call it windigo (Ashinabe)—the cannibalism of life for more material wealth, which they warned against and noted in Europeans they met.

“In one sense the history of mankind for the last 4,000 years is primarily the history of the destruction of democratic folk societies where the individual is respected and the replacement of these societies by Machiavellian societies with stratified systems of class structure and exploitation…this is what’s happening in so many parts of the world where individuals as well as whole peoples become corrupted, not just corrupted by the dollar as such, but corrupted by this new morality, and I call it 'the new morality' because I don’t believe that it is the original basic morality of human beings. It’s the new morality of 'get what you can and to hell with everybody else.'" (Forbes, 1974, p. 31).

The Midas mindset contrasts with most of the human species’ practices. Citing various scholars, Chayes mentions humanity’s long heritage of sharing meat, in particular, part of what distinguishes human beings from other apes. Even ancient Greeks initially used spits as forms of money based on their practice of sharing ritual animal sacrifices among all the people. Still today, equal distribution is expected among small-band hunter-gatherer societies, who represent 95-99% of human social history, where egalitarianism is fiercely enforced and violations are punished by consensus (Boehm, 1999).

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Boehm, C. (1999). Hierarchy in the forest: The evolution of egalitarian behavior. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Forbes, J. (1974). Self-determination and captive nations. In H. Reghaby (Ed.), Philosophy of the third world (pp. 23-41). Davis, CA: Deganawidah-Quetzalcoatl University.

Forbes, J.D. (2008). Columbus and other cannibals: The wétiko disease of exploitation, imperialism, and terrorism, rev ed. New York: Seven Stories Press.