The above title is not just paraphrasing Lord Acton's famous 1887 observation in a letter to a friend (Mandell Creighton). Scholars exploring the explosive corruption cases in this 21st Century, supposedly the most democratic moment in modern state history, also seem to be constantly corroborating its veracity. It is not just the spiralling number of world leaders being so tainted, but also the evaporation of the checks-and-balances that lifts democratic governments over all else that is at bay. In an age of rising material expectations, how to attain them has also degenerated to guttural levels.
At least the findings of a research by John Antonakis, professor of Organizational Behavior in the University of Lausanne's H.E.C. Business School in France, raises eyebrows. Measuring anti-social activities as a predictor of corruption, he finds (a) high-powered leaders engaging in more anti-social activities than low-powered individuals, therefore confirming Lord Acton's observation; and (b) those possessing corrupt inclinations before entering a position of power, measured by what he labels the 'high testosterone' element, such as depicted by Italy's former prime minister before he entered that office, Silvio Berlusconi, performing as badly as those being corrupted by acquiring a power position.
Even as this is being written, too many chief executives languish in prisons than we can recall. With South Korea's Park Geun-hye being one of the latest to join the incarcerated population, that too for 25 years, she joins another 2018 inductee, Brazil's former president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, also driven from the campaign-trails to the cell, in his case, for 12 years. In between Far-east Asia and Latin America, no continent has been spared this plague, helping us dispense such other possible explanatory factors as culture, population density, government typology, racial make-up, class identity, religious anchor, and other similar features as the main springboard. Getting into office has been proven to be one such feature, as too the Alpha Male unable to control testosterone outbursts.
Peru's Alberto Fujimori and Guatemala's Alfonso Portillo represent Latin America, a continent where narco-trafficking has, for at least a full generation, felled many other luminaries, although many others of their compatriots have successfully diluted these connections to escape jail sentences. Ehud Olmert, former prime minister of Israel, or as it often called by faithful followers, 'the chosen people' or 'people of the Book', also belongs to that incarcerated stock. Saudi Arabia's King Salman joins other on several other lists of the 'world's top-ten corrupted leaders' this year, alongside Pakistan's Nawaz Sharif, the world's most corrupted person on many of those lists, his neighbour, Narendra Modi in India, along with David Cameron in Great Britain, Sinzo Abe in Japan, the more obvious Vladimir Putin, and his surrogate Dmitry Medvedev, and of course, 'Rocket Man' Kim Jong-un, among so many others. Prison must have become a 5-star Who's Who Hotel.
No mention is made of the United States, not because it is corruption-free, but on the contrary, where corruption has been so neatly legitimised through political action committees (PACs) preying upon congressional representatives with lucrative deals to support one cause or oppose others, as well as free-flowing election contributions disguised under labyrinthine labels. That is not to say blatant corruption does not exist, but many caught red-handed have been in business circles than in political, given how the latter remains under greater exposure and scrutiny of the public.
It is not hard to see why democracy is losing its shine, at least one reason why. What may be more disturbing is the precedence set if leaders behave this way (and when caught, get lighter sentences or even exonerations that typical citizens barely receive), what is to stop the common citizen from taking corruption as a legitimate course of action? Drawing this line can keep lawyers working full-time when other more pressing tasks have been exploding, with law-suits from insurance claims, environmental spoilages, and, of late, the booming gender-driven Me-too types of cases, among so many others. If corruption enters the everyday dictionary, it loses its magic of raising suspicious eyes and breeding wariness, so much so that students might actually believe their classroom discussion on the topic could be redundant and a waste of time. In other words, shorn of its red-alert signals, corruption might be travelling the same route as alcohol and drugs in some countries: from an illegitimate item (like the Prohibition was to alcohol, or marijuana often is to drugs before key walls were lowered or erased), into a legitimate, everyday practice.
We should not be surprised if laws were changed accordingly, as they were with alcohol, marijuana, and some other drugs selectively. That would be the last bastion of what we call civil society: rules binding us together, telling us where to go and where not to go, all weakened so deliberately as to only await complete evaporation.
Surely there must be some countervailing force to correct human excesses? Yet, indeed, there are, but probably not enough to hold the tide, especially in this 'fake news' era when even almost every piece of evidence can be labelled as being subjective. Transparency as well as check-and-balance systems always expose the irregular behaviour out of a mission to monitor all behaviour. Then it boils down to which force is greater: those exposing the problem or the culprit rebutting the charges in ingeniously new ways today.
Here too we find power intervening, both social and financial power. Social power could be that of an elder, or a religious leader, whose belief in whatever the issue, whether correct or false, often finds reception in many of the less educated or blind-following people. Financial power, is, of course, money talking. A few paisas here or a job-opening there could easily change the recipient's viewpoint almost diametrically, suggesting how, if rules are not established, powerful and wealthy persons can never be wrong whenever they act in corrupt ways.
By and large, this is true; but as the chief executive named earlier indicate, some get caught in the web, and in many of those cases, transparency, either through the media, or a special kind of investigative media, like Wikileaks (of the Panama Papers infamy), played a decisive role. Bearing in mind how Nawaz Sharif and South Africa's Jacob Zuma still remain outside jail informs us of the wide variety of offsetting factors nullifying corruption. Until they go, corruption has no chance of disappearing.
The bottom-line might still remain that fading but sturdy institution: the family. Values preached here might still be the ones distinguishing the legitimate from the illegitimate. We just hope more than a wide majority of such people do not taste power, especially absolute power, if the rot is to be stemmed.
Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the newly-built Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.