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Source link: http://archive.mises.org/6705/the-ethics-of-bribery/

The Ethics of Bribery

June 1, 2007 by

Bribery has received a uniformly bad press, and it is generally assumed that bribery should be outlawed. Murray Rothbard asks: is this necessarily true? There is nothing illegitimate about the briber, he argues, but there is much that is illegitimate about the bribee, the taker of the bribe. Legally, there should be a property right to pay a bribe, but not to take one. It is only the taker of a bribe who should be prosecuted. In contrast, left-liberals tend to hold the bribe-giver as somehow more reprehensible, as in some way “corrupting” the taker. In that way they deny the free will and the responsibility of each individual for his own actions. FULL ARTICLE


Nick June 1, 2007 at 9:13 am

Say you see a crime being committed. Do you aid the criminal, or do you help the victim?

If you pay a bribe, you are aiding the criminal.


Jean Paul June 1, 2007 at 9:32 am

Nick, you need to elaborate your logic.

Tom June 1, 2007 at 9:44 am

How do you reconcile a similar scenario: Does the crack dealer have the right to sell drugs? (his personal property, and if not, does that deny the free will and the responsibility of each individual for his own actions?)

Brad June 1, 2007 at 9:45 am

This is somewhat timely in that the city I work in, Milwaukee, has been hit the “Michael McGee Scandal”, a triptych of extortion, vote buying, and money deals to beat someone, up if not kill him.

The first charge to hit was the gaul and temerity of McGee to seek “bribes” from business people or else licenses and permits would not be forthcoming (there apparently is an unwritten rule that if an alderman objects to an issuance in his district the rest of the council will honor it even though they would constitute a majority against said alderman). The word bribe is the word used in every article by the local press. I can only assume they do this, instead of rightfully calling it extortion, so that it throws some bad light on the business person themself, a la this article.

Of course what McGee is charged with is extortion. The other reason that such a word as extortion (the intimidation by the powerful against the weak, usually for money) isn’t used is that someone might put their “logical thinking cap” and ask what is the difference between what McGee has done and the actions of the State of Wisconsin and the several municipalities that threaten closure and fines if a “fee” isn’t paid as well. McGee’s power is simply an extension of the power grab made by government itself.

The twist, if newspaper articles are right, is that McGee is said to have used some of this “shakedown money” to fund gun buyback programs, essentially a “public service”. One just has to ask what the difference is? How dare he run a sub-government under the aegis of “legitimate” government, doing pretty much the same thing? Certainly doesn’t make McGee’s actions proper, just throws light back on just what “legitimate” government has done. The inconsistency if mind boggling.

George Gaskell June 1, 2007 at 10:01 am

Brad, having lived in New Orleans for many years, I can relate to your experience with McGee in Milwaukee. Edwin Edwards comes to mind.

The press invariably refers to these transactions as bribes, when they are properly a form of extortion.

DC June 1, 2007 at 10:21 am

Tom, you write:

How do you reconcile a similar scenario: Does the crack dealer have the right to sell drugs? (his personal property, and if not, does that deny the free will and the responsibility of each individual for his own actions?)

I’m not entirely sure who this comment is aimed at, but Rothbard would readily agree that the crack dealer has every right to sell drugs.

Bruce June 1, 2007 at 10:24 am

I’ve worked in a number of third world countries where I’ve seen this but I’ll use Indonesia. I was driving in Jakarta and my driver made an illegal lane change on one of the round-abouts. A policeman on the side of the road pulled us over and after a few minutes of haggling the driver paid the policeman about 1 dollar (a lot of money for a driver) and we were on our way. Other expats thought this kind of bribing was bad but in fact I disagree. In the United States for the same minor violation a policeman in a car or maybe a motor bike would pull you over and give you a ticket for 100 dollars. You can go to court and challenge the ticket or pay the fine and take points on your license or pay the fine plus pay a 100 dollar fee to take a day long driver ed class on safe driving (then no points on your license and your insurance rates stay lower). Our system is expensive because we have to support police in the field, transport, a court system, insurance and driver education training. In Indonesia the cop on the street keeps most of the money but also probably passes some along up to his supervisor and so salaries and infrastructure remain very low in Indonesia. I don’t really see where the bribe or bribee is so bad in this minor traffic violation example of a poor country like Indonesia.

DC June 1, 2007 at 10:25 am

Nick: Like others, I think you’ll need to flesh out this scenario a bit more for your conclusion to follow.

If you are making an argument that it’s immoral to accept (or pay) bribes, and especially so to accept one from a criminal, I’m fairly confident that Rothbard would agree with you completely.

Rothbard writes in this chapter (and the one before it), however, that he is not concerned with moral rights and wrongs but with justice — with that which can be enforced and defended legally.

V Harris June 1, 2007 at 10:59 am

The property owner (whom the bribee represents) has a claim against BOTH the bribee and the briber. This is true because both have conspired to deprive the owner of his rightful property. In the event that the owner is unable to fully recover from the bribee, the owner ought to have every right to proceed against the briber to be made whole.

Michael A. Clem June 1, 2007 at 1:01 pm

While I see your point, Nick, that the briber is contributing to the problem, I’m not sure it’s entirely accurate. What crime did the briber commit? What force or fraud was initiated by the briber?
The person accepting the bribe violated his contract, so it’s not so much a crime as a tort. The person offering the bribe probably doesn’t know anything about the contract, and even if he does, HE couldn’t violate the contract since he’s not a party to it.
As for bribes under corrupt authorities, as others have properly pointed out, it’s extortion–force or fraud has been initiated or threatened, and bribery is a viable response for avoiding the threat.

Matt June 1, 2007 at 4:14 pm

V Harris is right, the briber is guilty of conspiracy, especially if he offered not only the bribe but the idea.

It is true that the bribee is often in the position of extortionist. And in Congress, where there are usually “bribes”, it is clear who controls the relationship.

But think of different situations. A man is walking down the street, and one thug says to another, “Go punch that guy and take his wallet, no one is around.” For that matter, one could hatch an elaborate plot to rob a bank, and then tell it to a friend, who carries out the plot.

Henry Miller June 1, 2007 at 9:40 pm

In the radio example someone is being robbed: the customers of the radio station. No, not the listeners, they are the product of the radio station. The customers are those who buy advertising. When a radio station doesn’t play the songs the listeners want to hear, the listeners go elsewhere, thus robbing customer of some product.

Of course the payola for records is also buying listener ears, so it isn’t clear that the loss to some customers isn’t outweighed by loss to the others. I’m not going to comment on that, other than to note that if you are a customer of a radio station you need to be aware that other customers may have interests that are harmful to yours.

Brian June 1, 2007 at 9:52 pm

I notice no one has pointed out the largest giver of bribes. The Government. Not only do they bribe; they compound their crime by doing it with other peoples money. When you see how the government uses bribes to corrupt and then control different segments of society it becomes hard to defend the action of bribery in general. Bribery is insidious. Bribers are corrupt and must corrupt the bribee in order to be successfull. Nick has the right idea.

Nick June 2, 2007 at 5:10 am

Consider burglary.

Here the buglar is taking property from another person, and violates their property rights.

What if you as a third party help the burglar to take the property, but you yourself do not benefit.

From the bribery logic above, you are completely innocent and have done nothing wrong.

ie. The briber is the person who aids the burglar. The receiver of the bribe is the burgler. The company is the person who’s property was stolen.

The briber plays the role of an accomplice to a crime, and that is more than some passive involvement.

Should you be encouraging people to violate other’s property rights?

Not very Misesian.


Scott D June 2, 2007 at 9:31 am


It is very important that you provide enough details in your examples to judge them properly. I could envision several possible actions that a third party might take to aid in a burglary. For example:

1. Robber and accomplice break into a house and steal several thousands of dollars worth of valuables. Robber makes off with the loot and accomplice takes nothing. The accomplice is just as culpable as the robber for the trespass, theft, and property destruction. Note that even if the pair caused no damage, then changed their mind and left without taking anything, they would still be guilty of at least trespassing.

2. Robber and accomplice pull up to the street outside the house. Robber enters the house to rob it while accomplice remains out in the car to watch. Both would still be guilty of the crime, since the accomplice was an active participant in it.

3. Accomplice observes the house over the course of several days and notes when the owners come and go. Accomplice then sells this information to robber, who goes on to rob the house. Has the accomplice done anything wrong here?

Michael A. Clem June 2, 2007 at 1:08 pm

Once again, Nick, you present a criminal action for your analogy instead of something more appropriate.
Let’s say, instead, that you lease a car, and the contract calls for a lease of at least 2 years before you can end it. Your friend thinks you’re paying too much on the lease and encourages you to break it before 2 years are up. He even offers to make a down payment on another car for you. Better yet, the friend works on a car lot and will give you a good deal on one of their cars, so he will profit from your breaking the lease contract.
Has the friend done anything wrong? He’s encouraged you to violate your contract. Can the leaser of the car go after the friend for complicity or conspiracy?

Gustavo Oliveira June 2, 2007 at 6:41 pm

There is a fault line in the argument, since it does not refer to the kind of the companies involved in the scheme.
Maybe the illustration is ok for liberal (and working) capitalist economies, but it does not apply for many third-world countries, where big buyers are still State agents.
If XYZ is a public-owned company, the logic has to be changed, since the briber is threating everyone’s asset. Thus, his act should be outlawed.

Artisan June 3, 2007 at 5:39 am

If you start with the utopy of a libertarian society with all State functions held by Insurance companies in competition with each other… than a bribe reflects a breach of contract (insurola?)… and probably makes the insurance company less efficient. But you’d have to prove the briber knows about employment policies of his insurer… except it is part of his insurance contract (I assume it would be the case, in fact).

In a monopolistic “Insurance” State, bribery may be illegal, just like many things are illegal … unless the State says otherwise. It’s impossible to say here if it’s good or bad in general. There’s no real contracting with citizen as they are not free to evade the contract either (it’a “proposition they can’t refuse”). There’s only a contract tying the State with his servants, so bribery reflects a “contract breach” between the State and his own employees, no more. Here, bribery is mainly not allowed because it disrupts the State servant power hierarchy. That’s a vague and minor concept. There’s no real efficiency proof needed for the government actions anyways though. Sometimes citizen will even deal a prosecution drop with the DA… legally, even though it is clearly a bribe and it undermines the credibility of justice.

Todd Whitesel June 3, 2007 at 5:39 am

Paying someone specifically to commit a crime sounds a lot like conspiracy to me!

In the payola case, I am trusting the broadcast media to be straight with me about what is a paid advertisement and what has been judged on merit. When that ceases to be true, as far as I’m concerned I have been defrauded.

You could argue that broadcasters do not make this promise to their customers, but they sure act as if it’s true, and the fact that people are willing to secretly engage in payola is more evidence that the value of the payola has a lot to do with buying credibility not justified by merit.

As far as I’m concerned, bribery is just another form of market manipulation. What I object to is the secrecy — I want to know the true market price being paid, not the artifical market price that does not include the bribe.

Vig June 15, 2007 at 4:46 pm

I really fail to see why you do not argue for legalisation. That is the only real libertarian and practical solution. Then we can all have a go at introducing a competitive market.

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