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The ethics of bribing third world country officials

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Marco    3

Hello everybody, I'm curious what you think about this issue. A friend of mine (not me) is currently in a third world country and has to do a visa run (a stupid bureaucratic thing in itself already).

It's very common to give 5$ more lest the officials let you wait for a couple of hours while you are anxiously waiting and worrying if they will approve the visa or not.

Many people told my friend that he should give the "coffee money" to make things easier.

On the one hand,

  • there might be a moral problem with giving money to corrupt officials because it rewards bad behavior and gives even more money to government officials,
  • it's probably illegal, though never enforced, (we are talking about my friend here, I would never do such a thing)

but on the other hand

  • if it was not a moral issue, my friend would happily pay 5$ for less stress and saving time
  • my friend is already very anxious about essentially being at the mercy of the officials
  • when in Rome, do as the Romans do - it's the responsibility of the citizens to fix their country
  • refusing to pay would have little impact on corruption
  • as with the grey and black market, corruption is sometimes the only thing that keeps things running in an authoritarian system - maybe it's good that you can get everything you want with enough cash

Please let me know what you think! :)






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Drew Davis    125

If he is not initiating force against another person, then it is not immoral. Those governments are the ones initiating force. You could argue that taxes are a bribe to keep the government from seizing your property and throwing you in jail.

Tell your friend to smile, be polite, and be white! That worked for me in Asia.

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Wuzzums    654

I come from a country where that sort of thing is just daily routine. It's true what they say about Eastern European and ex-Soviet countries, how people from those places are very prone to white collar types of crime. Because the former regime was so oppressive and inefficient and because you needed to spend weeks in bureaucratic hell to do anything "by the book" people learned how to hustle. The whole system works on hustling (more or less). Most people are state employees so there's no such concept of "getting paid for good service". The employees get paid the same whether they do a good job or no job at all. Therefore they expect a little "extra" as an incentive to do a good job.

Now from a legal standpoint there are a ton of ways to circumnavigate the act of bribery per se:

If they receive the bribe after the fact then it is not classified as a bribe.

If they receive the bribe before and did not solicit it then it is not classified as a bribe.

If one gives a bribe and the other takes the bribe both parties are guilty.

If the giver of the bribe gets caught they can just play stupid and pretend they thought they had to pay after which they will get a receipt, bla, bla. Or he could just play the "I'm a foreigner and this is just common courtesy in my country lol" card. Nobody's gonna arrest anybody over 5$. This is the reason why the bribes are so small. If it were 500$ then a third party would gladly come into the mix maybe to even get his "cut" in order to turn a blind eye.

A bribe soliciting something illegal is a serious crime and it's usually prosecuted. A bribe soliciting that the state official does his job is petty crime and the official is the guilty party. 

If the 5$ come in the form of a gift like a box of chocolates, alcohol or whatever then it is not considered a bribe. Also, standing in line with a large bouquet of flowers might signal to some willing to be bribed teller that you're willing to bribe them with said bouquet of flowers. In your friend's case, if he chooses to pay the bribe, why not instead of money just buy the officials involved actual coffee?

Plus, receiving good service from a state-employee is an underhanded way of them telling you that they're expecting something in return. Kinda like a waiter at a restaurant.

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Mishi2    33

What I learned from my parents is that there is a time to demonstrate your virtue, and there is a time not to.
This may sound kinda pragmatistic, but hear me out...

Whenever I had some sort of severe injury or some other urgent problem, like a broken bone for instance my parents would naturally bribe the doctor who could help, because that sped up the process. Other times, when we were under no serious pressure, they would stick to their principles. According to their value system, being honourable was much lower than the health of their children.

So your friend should probably ask himself what the prices are for standing by his principles, and if he is willing to bear the costs of getting a dent in his honour. This is for him to judge only, as it his his value system. 

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Bribery only works in an absence of all other market forces.

- everyone is trying to do visa runs, they all pay the same exact fees etc. so no market forces, the bribe replaces it. Everyone who pays $5 moves to the top of the paperwork stack as if they had just purchased a higher VIP experience from the beginning.

- one purchaser picks one supplier for their company, they all offer about the same thing, the one that gives you tickets to the box for the basketball game gets the contract

in each example, there are no deciding important market forces any more so it all comes down to personal preference which is a secondary financial gain that has nothing to do with the transaction.


In example 1, the government is the direct cause. In example 2, it should be acceptable and moral only if it doesn't harm the company. But, if they chose to advance themselves at the expense of the company they should be fired, so there is definitely an incentive for them to not do it in such a way that it harms.


When I had a certain job, we would spend like $10,000 or so on many different companies. The bids would all look the same: $10,000 for 1 million widgets, $10,000 for 1 million widgets etc etc. a big list of that. So whichever company mailed us the most and the best swag gifts got to the top of the list. I don't think I am legally supposed to acknowledge that but whatever.

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