The fight against corruption and Kant

September 1, 2016

It is interesting to still see folks claim that, because companies, senior managers, employees and contractors engage in bribery and corruption, it is all somehow the fault of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) for not being effective. Such arguments hold about as much weight as asserting that speeding limits are ineffective because people choose to break the law and drive in excess of them. Those who argue that the FCPA is somehow ‘broken’ because people violate it miss the critical fact that, as long as there are financial rewards to be obtained, there are some people who will do almost anything to make more money.

As an insight into human nature, I do not think that this is too controversial. Laws such as the FCPA help to set a standard for conduct that makes it fairer and less opaque for all. Yet all parties have a role in compliance. Of course, it begins with senior management setting the proper tone that business will be conducted ethically and in compliance. Moreover, it must be more than simply a wink and a nod to such concepts – all the while rewarding those employees who always hit their numbers through promotions and financial incentives.

I was reminded of all of this when reading a recent review of the new book, The Moral Economy: Why Incentives are No Substitute for Good Citizens in the Financial Times. The review was by Robert Armstrong and was in an article entitled, ‘When greed isn’t good’. Armstrong found one central thesis of the book to be, “that no market structure or contract is so well designed that it can eliminate all opportunities for bad actors to take unfair advantage of the credulous”. He goes on to observe that the book closely aligns to the imperative of the 18th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant.

I found these insights useful when considering the roles that we all must play in the global fight against bribery and corruption. Of course, the government has a role to play in banning bribery and corruption and then enforcing that ban. Yet businesses also have a role to play by implementing best practice compliance programmes to adequately prevent, detect and remedy any transgressions in this ongoing struggle. When you can tie all this back to Kant, it makes it clear that modern legislative efforts to fight the global scourge of corruption have deep roots.

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