Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira
When Society is Corrupt,
Is There a Solution?
A lecture given on 12-4-1993 (*)
In 1337, the rulers of Siena called upon Ambrogio Lorenzetti, the greatest painter of the Sienese School, to create a fresco cycle for Siena 's town hall, the Sala dei Nove in the Palazzo Pubblico. The Allegory of Good and Bad Government (above) is the first true masterpiece of secular art and one of the greatest paintings of the 14th Century. It is a painted fresco that covers three of four walls of the room. People from all over the world are captivated by this image and many make the journey to Sienna, Italy.
A while back, the Italian Parliament voted to overturn prison sentences for politicians convicted of receiving illegal campaign contributions in light of unprecedented scandals. The legislation established that illegal contributions to political campaigns were no longer crimes but simply “civil offenses,” where those convicted would no longer be arrested but fined.
All the nation’s parties, communists and pro-autonomy members of the Northern League alike, joined members of corruption-tainted parties to get the law approved. Political contributions are no longer illegal as long as they are used exclusively to finance election campaigns. The new law was retroactive and benefited defendants.
The Italian law is an example that shows how campaign finance is a very real problem that plagues so many modern nations. Given the possibility of corruption, it is often asked if it is licit to finance candidates.
In principle, a rich man or corporate businessman who pays a large sum of money to finance the political campaign of a politician with ideas similar to his own should not be censured for it.
Indeed, a man who can financially help elect a candidate with a platform capable of saving his country would show great stinginess if he failed to do so.
In theory, the fact that a rich person donates to get a poorer one elected is not dishonest. It can even be considered an act of virtue.
This changes, however, when a businessman or banker supports a presidential candidate for reasons other than ideological affinity. If he finances the politician’s campaign so he can received kickbacks and business contracts later, then their agreement is spurious. The matter becomes worse when the kickbacks involve the companies that are not the most cost-efficient ones. An agreement of this kind transforms an act of idealism into a corrupt deal, and is therefore illicit.
Furthermore, the businessman can exact from the State a much higher price than would a competitor who did not help elect the candidate. Thus, by charging a disproportional price for services rendered, the deal takes on an irrefutably dishonest nature.
Corruption and System of Government
In theory, this kind of falsification found in election systems does not always happen. It depends on the people involved. Honest people will work for the State and the common good. Thus, one cannot draw from this an argument against any form of government or against the capitalist system. One can only infer that fraud can take place in a democratic form of government, a claim that can also be made against other forms of government as well.
Do ut des; Facio ut Facias
The above considerations are greater or lesser variations on a central thought that could be described by the maxim of Roman law: Do ut des; facio ut facias (I give you that you may give me; I do for you that you may do for me). This arrangement can be honest or dishonest, depending on the understanding of the parties involved.
Dishonesty can occur in any form of government, be it democracy or monarchy. It can also occur in the capitalist or communist system. However, it is well to recall that, in addition to the fact that Communism is intrinsically evil, communist regimes turned their party members, particularly their leadership, into a nomenklatura which meant a privileged caste in former Soviet jargon. This system became very patent after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Degree of Public Morality
Thus, the crux of this matter is not found in a particular form of government or economic system. It lies in the degree of public morality and particularly the behavior of public officials. The fact is that such fraudulent deals do not take place where people take the existence of God seriously and really abide by His Law.
However, in countries whose people do not seriously believe in the existence of God or fulfill His Law, a certain number may steal and benefit from goods that are not their own.
This is not just an economic question, though it has an economic side. It is not just a political matter, though it has a political side. Rather, this whole topic is fundamentally a religious and moral one. In a place without religion or morals, things necessarily move toward the complete crumbling of all economic, political and social order.
The Justice in the Bad Government
What About Repression Against Theft?
Obviously, every kind of illegality and immorality should be categorically repressed. However, just punishing thieves will never eliminate theft. This is because in a country whose population does not obey the Ten Commandments of God’s Law, the number of thieves tends to grow exponentially, so to speak. If five thieves are arrested, the total thief population is not down by five. Actually, five vacancies have been opened, and fifty new candidates will pop up to fill them.
The problem is fundamentally a moral one, and as such it also involves religious considerations.
In the semi-communist legislation of many so-called non-communist modern nations, growing restrictions on private property are leading to a situation where fully exercising the right of property depends on authorization from the State. Thus, for instance, there are countries where mineral rights – which legitimately belong to the landowner – can only be developed with State permission. To obtain this permit, an honest person is often forced to resort to bribes to avoid indefinite procrastination.
In this case, he is asked to give money to exercise a right that already is legitimately his own. It is the State that steals when it unjustly limits the right of property. Irregularities of this nature later extend to political bribes of all kinds.
This behavior spreads throughout the whole population. Those who pay bribes are seen as smart while those who do not are regarded as fools. The “smart” ones make money. Those who do not bribe must hold property they are unable to use. This is the inexorable consequence of excessive State intervention in the economy.
Thievery Made Official
If even honest people are asked to pay bribes, what can be said of the dishonest? Bribery spreads like an oil stain on a fabric, penetrating the whole fabric of society.
At a given moment, the number of thieves becomes so high that it is practically impossible to repress crime without placing the whole nation in jail. The Italian formula mentioned above is then adopted: Bribery is no longer declared a crime but only a mere infraction subject to fines. There are actually two fines: the bribe for the functionary and the penalty for the State. The person is free to do what he wants. Thievery is made official.
Thus, an ordinary thief who steals a car can be punished with imprisonment, whereas a politician who traffics in influence for his election campaign is neither demoralized nor imprisoned. He just pays a fine. Since he is receiving illicit funds, everyone comes out ahead. Everyone steals, and stealing becomes an official custom.
The End of Private Property
When thievery is thus made official, private property is doomed to extinction. When stealing becomes generalized, illicit advantages become the standard not only in doing State business but any other business as well.
In such a context, hard work loses prestige and influence, and is replaced by the practice of making money dishonestly. Thievery becomes king of society. The economic system, be it communist or capitalist, falls prey to bribery. The country becomes a “robberland” where a minority of thieves billet themselves in power.
Chaos is the Goal
This disintegration of society leads to a distorted debate between Communism and Anti-Communism. Communists claim that thievery is widespread in capitalist regimes. However, the situation in Eastern European countries emerging from Communism shows that in a communist regime, thievery and bribery was generally, if not officially, established. Thus, the public is confused by these mutual accusations of thievery and conclude that the world is doomed to anarchy and chaos.
In a regime where thievery becomes officialized, there is no reason to dispute between Capitalism and Communism. Everything becomes so fuzzy because Communism becomes equivalent to Capitalism and vice-versa. Everyone becomes a thief, except for the few who still believe in God.
Laws like that approved in Italy are the first steps toward generalizing a legal system more or less similar to the one described above. Sooner of later, this system will affect all nations of the world. The end result will be the complete loss of public morality, political composure, and social order.
Good Government (Lorenzetti)
What Remedy is There?
What today’s society really lacks are elites and especially moral elites. What is missing are those elites par excellence, where families still retain a memory of their forefathers, still value their reputation for honesty, and still desire to serve as models for society.
So much has been done that has concretely ruined the prestige of true elites. If no work is done to restore them, nothing can be done.
In the name of favoring the more modest classes, society has become increasingly egalitarian. This led to the progressive crushing of authentic elites and the gradual disappearance of those structures and values which provided the element for the genesis of authentic culture and leadership.
Thus deprived of authentic leadership, society is gradually disoriented and increasingly tending toward chaos as time goes by.
The Good Government - Justice
The Only Real Solution
One could argue that many, who rightly see the lack of religion as the root of all evil, could begin to practice religion and thus slowly eliminate corruption. However, the fact is that many of these same people will not take a leading role in spreading religion because they see that insisting on an atmosphere of austerity and moral severity would oblige them to change their own way of life.
These people are comparable to that of certain gamblers. They will agree that illegal gambling is harmful to the welfare of the country. However, they still gamble because they do not wish to change their ways.
Putting an end to the situation described above calls for an essentially religious apostolate that attracts Divine Grace. This apostolate, with the help of grace, must really touch people’s minds and souls and achieve real conversion. Such conversions would be the starting point whereby something could be done. However, these conversions are obviously extremely difficult in times of general immorality when people are attached to the advantages vice brings them and have, therefore, little propensity to abandon their bad life.
Our Lady of Fatima
To delve into the most obscure nooks and crannies of the problem, a complete solution lies in finding apostles like those described by Abbot Jean-Batiste Chautard in his famous work, The Soul of the Apostolate. They must be endowed with real interior life, desirous above all to see the accomplishment of God’s will and designs on earth as it is in heaven. They must be apostles who draw others with their example, move people with their word, and strive to make the laws of the state in accordance to those of God, thus changing people’s behavior. In short, the action of these authentic apostles can really touch souls. If these correspond to grace, they will convert.
And to convert, contemporary man must be docile to the recommendation of Our Lady to mankind at Fatima in 1917: they must pray and do penance.
(*) This article is adapted and it was not revised by the author. – Ed. American TFP.