Do laws corrupt people?

What’s the fundamental reason for corruption?

One argument could be regarding incentives, institutions, lack of enforcement etc. If this is identified as the cause then the action would be to restructure the incentives and institutions. Most economists and policy analysts hold this view.

The other argument is that people are inherently corrupt. The strategy for reform should thus be to make people ‘non-corrupt’ — ‘change begins at home’. Common public tend to hold this view. This may seem naive but surprisingly this view is held by many people. During the peaks of Anna movement, many argued that — we are corrupt as a society — unless we change mentally- laws can do little.

The second argument regarding mental attitudes seems very convincing because of the simplicity of the idea and the solutions that follow it. It’s also easily picked up by those who are often worried about the declining standards of morality in humanity.

What’s the truth? Is it due to incentive structures or is it due to inherent nature of a society? or a mixture of both. If it’s a mixture of both, then what’s the one most contributing? We can consider an alternate hypothesis that satisfies the concerns of both the groups.

The narrative that marries both the above hypothesis could be — Majority of humans are all the same. They respond to incentives. Corruption was initiated due to bad incentive structures and since it continued for long, it got ingrained in people. So, when you just look at snapshot of current context, it would look as if the problem is with inherent nature of people. But, if you look temporally, you would realize that it’s not the case.

The strategy for reform to tackle corruption should hence approach it from the end of tweaking incentive structures, instead of approaching it from the other end, instilling moral education to people. Once you restructure incentives, the ingrained tendency would also get weeded out with time.

This argument clearly rests on the presumption that ‘incentives let corrupt nature seep through and it gets hardwired over time’. Any evidence which can suggest this could prove the point. Typically, case studies are used to demonstrate this phenomenon — examples of where corruption reduced after instituting appropriate incentives are used to argue that people aren’t inherently corrupt and that corruption can be addressed by changing incentive structures without resorting to moral lessons. Though, that would serve a purpose, it might still not be convincing. Evidence from neuro-science that actually demonstrates such human nature would be more helpful. We now have the evidence on these lines.

In a new study, researchers have found that
dishonesty gradually increases with repetition and gradually escalates and can get hard wired
Researchers mapped brains of participants using functional MRI (fMRI) and noticed that
amygdala, a brain area intricately involved in emotional responses, was most active when people first lied for personal gain. The amygdala’s response to lying declined with every lie while the magnitude of the lies escalated.
Critically, the extent of reduced amygdala sensitivity to dishonesty on a present decision relative to the previous one predicts the magnitude of escalation of self-serving dishonesty on the next decision
In other words, when you first do a dishonest act, there’s an emotional response which signals you not to act so. As you repeat the dishonest acts, the response, which urges you against it, stops declining in intensity. In long run, one gets just blunt to any such action.

In summary -

Inherent dishonesty of the majority is NOT the root-cause of corruption. Such traits of dishonesty that are visible now are cultivated over time due to the prevalent incentive structures, instituted by laws. Hence, the reform should be approached from the perspective of restructuring the incentives. Moral lessons to people would help little.

So, do laws corrupt people?

Yes. They can. If they are forcing people necessitating them to break the laws by initiating the  chain of reducing sensitivity to dishonesty.

It's not just laws, it applies to institutions too. A huge section of people necessitated to pay bribes to get things done get immune to `corruption` and take it for granted. The new normal for acceptable actions goes down.

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