The Tipping Point of Bribery


The only difference between paying tips and paying bribes might just be semantic. I’m not drunk; let me defend my sobriety.

It was at LaGuardia airport. The taxi driver dragged my bag out and threw it on the ground, slammed the trunk angrily and screamed, “fucking nigger” as he marched with fuming inelegance into the car and sped off. What did my mischievous self do this time to upset a taxi driver? No, I didn’t box his ears from behind, are you crazy! I probably should have blown air on his bald head but considering that’s where I’m literally “headed” I was prudent not to endanger karma.

So what did I do to piss off this “yellow cab” driver? I did not have enough cash to pay him a tip. Well, I also thought tips were only a highly recommended voluntary extra payment, but well, this guy actually demanded it, and when I showed him all the cash I had was only enough to pay my fare, he gave me this top notch unforgettable exit service.

Fast forward two weeks later, I was in a taxi again in New York, this time to JFK and here I was, being given a sermon by this taxi driver on how my tip should be really good considering all the shortcuts he was taking to get me to the airport in time for my flight. Of course, this time I came prepared with enough to tip. Let’s say I had been properly schooled.

I am not the only one with stories about how service providers in the US have used coercion and persuasion to take tips from people. In fact when I shared my story, it aroused series of similar testimonies in different settings from restaurants to bars where service providers have sometimes even specified how much tip they want. I don’t know what God thinks about it, but these guys are making us pay tithes to them too, and for what, services we are already paying for.

For someone like me who comes from a country famed for bribery, this extortionist punch of tips has had me seriously rethinking bribery, as I know it, having worked in and with public institutions. I think that for all the jiggery-pokery of semantics and the socio-legal permutations, we overestimate the innocence of tips and the guilt of bribery. I am still sober.

There are two distinct differences between tips and bribes: time and transactional space. Tips are often paid after the service and bribes are often paid before the service. The intent is supposed to in the case of tips appreciate the service received, and in the case of bribes influence the service about to be received. Well, if you think about it, it’s all about influencing behavior, and the timing can easily be shifted. If I frequent a particular restaurant and pay heavy tips always, needless to say, I would seriously influence future transactions and the service rendered to me. We have all been to places where certain customers are received as local heroes and given preferential treatments because they tip heavier. So unless it is strictly a one-off transaction, tips influence future services like bribes.

Even in one-off transactions, one could very well argue similarity, within the scope of anticipated reinforcement. In anticipation of a tip as reward, I offer good service to influence both your decision on if and how much tip you would give. If the ensuing tip does not match my expectations vis-à-vis the effort outlay, then I would want to kill you, like my first taxi driver, so it better. Or I may shamelessly negotiate a favorable outcome by overtly linking my effort to the anticipated tip, like my second taxi driver. Whichever way you shift the payment within time, tips can influence behavior just as bribes do. It’s a game of influence.

However there is the second factor of transactional space that challenges the above argument—tips are paid in private transactions whereas bribes are paid in public transactions. Even if you paid a public official money after a transaction because you were elated with the service, moralistic regimes are likely to proclaim it bribery rather than a tip. I could see sense in the argument that we should not permit people who render services to the public, whose roles call for objectivity and impartiality (private businesses are permitted to be as biased as the devil’s wife) and whose jobs are funded by our taxes should not be placed in the game of influence, be it tips or bribes.

But why not! Why shouldn’t public officials be allowed to take tips? I would like to pay a tip to a cop for stopping me to check my car trunk in the middle of the night, just in case I have finally killed Sefa and put him there to rot. Because the last time I checked we pay tips to supplement the low wages of staff. Well, arguably, public officials, especially in my low-income Ghana are paid way worse than their private sector counterparts. As a matter of fact they need those tips more, you see. I believe like the private business, it will be that extrinsic motivation that finally gets public servants off their “it’s not my father’s business” attitude into rendering Jedi services. What’s good for the private goose should be good for the public gander, don’t you think.

I’m not saying they should break the law, or subvert processes, I’m only saying we should consider letting the customer influence the quality of service they receive from the public service provider, as they do the private ones. You are right; the nihilist within me is at work, but why not. Why should we bother with delineating bribery from tips when there is absolutely no axiological difference between them, when they both seek to influence. We may not be dealing with the headache of bribes if we normed it by tipping it from its moral low ground of corruption to that moral haven of candor that its identical twin, tips enjoy.

Else, let’s abolish both, because they are both, in my opinion pointless equally as they are useful equally; equally capable of evil as they are of positive utility. I pay taxes that pay the public servant, well, so do I pay for the services from that restaurant. If I am required to pay tips to the latter, why not pay tips to the former. If it is inappropriate to pay tips bribe to the public official, why should I be required to pay bribes tips to the waitress?

Of course I won’t pay a tip to the police for arresting me for murder, but why can’t the victim’s family do that. Surely, it will motivate the cops when they stand in the cold checking car trunks the next time. [As an aside, cops certainly won’t be harassing/shooting black citizens for pointless reasons, considering that may not help their tips; I doubt any cop will say they don’t want a black person’s tip. I don’t think any waitress has refused someone’s tip on the basis of his or her skin color yet, why would cops].

If my consular officer refuses me a Visa, he’s not getting a tip from me, because I am not satisfied with the service, dammit. That does not mean he should give me a Visa if I do not warrant it, but he would more likely be nicer about refusing me the Visa, and will be likely to show me how to make an improved application, rather than dismissing my application like it was a letter from his wife’s divorce lawyer.

We wouldn’t have to police bribes in the public sector or make it this sacred thing that is conducted with cultic diligence. Public servants won’t have to shamelessly stall on their work to signal an invitation for bribes before they hasten to duty. The rules of engagement will be clear: if you want extra payment, do your job, and well, and the satisfied customer will reward you. If the private sector is allowed to maintain such a practice and it has not degenerated into mass madness then the public sector that regulates the private sector should be able to do it. Else, like the Aussies, say no to bribes, say no to, tips. What you earn is what you have earned. No room for extra nonsense!

Now I think I am getting drunk in my head, but hey, give this drunkard a break! The point is, any money marked as extra payment will almost always influence behavior whether it is paid before or after the transaction. It can be good such that it leads to better services, and it could also slip into insanity, if it is subverted for exploitation. If any culture decides it’s good to have such a practice, then it is hypocritical to call it “bribery” if it is paid before a service, and “tips” if it is paid after the service, because the outcome is the same. If due to lack of imagination you limit it to just the private sector but you assume cynicism when it comes to the public sector, then it is unfortunate and discriminatory.

Well, I’m crazy, obviously. Let those with a more sane opinion on this matter throw some my way.

One thought on “The Tipping Point of Bribery

  1. The difference between your goose and gander is that one, for the most part, is providing a trivial service that can be easily substituted or circumvented. The other however is non negotiable, with lob-sided relative power.

    Generally speaking, that power imbalance is justified by considerations for the greater good. The public interest.

    Undermining said interest by way of coercion, be it bribes, threats or other forms of manipulative influence, is an affront against the whole.

    All of the sudden all are not equal, as those with means, more than already, can incentivise to their end. There will be an ever increasing division between those that can influence and those that can’t. Society fractures and you inevitably bring about chaos and conflict from those that are disenfranchised.

    Bribery in third world countries is a different kettle of fish. Poorly managed economies have such disjointed pricing structures that public officials are completely priced out of certain markets.

    The ‘action tax’ seeks to correct that. It is fundamentally a market failure though, with all the misery that goes with it. Bad economics that is often the result of underlying cultural realities that allow it to come about.

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