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The Endemic Challenge of Corruption

“How explain the fact that these calamities have befallen Rome at the hands of certain Christian emperors? Simply by denying the fact. It was not the Christianity of the emperors which brought ruin upon the Empire, rather, it was the vices within the Empire itself.”1

Something similar can be said of Western Civilization in the 21st century when we are witnessing the fact that the basic liberal democratic institutions-that undoubtedly have contributed to its greatness-are gradually falling apart.  The Enlightenment philosophers believed that science and reason could change the laws of nature and improve human relations and social institutions. They also had a blind faith in the inevitable triumph of the ideas of the French “Philosophes” and the great abstractions of liberté, egalité and fraternité, but even such noble principles were not meeting expectations. They were metamorphosed into license (anything goes), competition (go for the gold), and an ever-increasing social disharmony.  Even the very concept of freedom, respect for the law, and the reality of an objective truth were being threatened by a wave of relativism which no longer distinguished right from wrong.  The reality of an objective moral order was either rejected, or ignored.

As a consequence of a badly interpreted Enlightenment, Western civilization is now facing a tsunami of relativism which has left it without a safe and reliable moral compass which helps man distinguish right from wrong: the reality of natural law.  It’s like a ship without a rudder.  The gradual deterioration of the free political, social, and economic structures of Western civilization are in dire peril of extinction and, what is even worse, constitute a mortal threat to the entire brilliant Judeo-Christian heritage.

The Enlightenment Miracle, as Johann Goldberg tells us in his new book Suicide of the West, brought about liberal capitalism, and with it, unbelievable economic progress.2  The brilliant economist and Harvard Professor Joseph Schumpeter reminds us that not only has the index of production increased dramatically during the last hundred years, but also “broadly speaking …relative shares in national income… have remained substantially changed in favor of the lower income groups.”3 If this is true, which I personally agree with, then the question remains as to what went wrong with liberal capitalism that has caused so much ill will and even hatred to the degree of trying to pull it down?

There is no doubt that the Industrial Revolution brought with it many abuses and injustices as, for example, the ones prevailing in the slums of London and other major cities, which were well depicted in the novels of Charles Dickens (i.e., Oliver Twist).  The reaction against these abuses and the crass individualism of the nineteenth century was not long to follow. It went all the way from the extreme and violet forms of Marxism to a more moderate socialism, not excluding the government inspired Keynesian economics (The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, 1936), and the German Historical School of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  The Romantic movement and the German Historical School, with its centralization policies (ie., Gustav von Schmoller and Friedrich List) seemed to be gaining ground in continental Europe.4  Only the so-called Austrian School — led by such  brilliant scholars as Karl Menger, Bohm von Bawerk and Friedrich Hayek — kept the banner of liberal capitalism alive and flourishing.5

With the arrival of the 21st century, criticism of Liberalism and the Enlightenment institutions increased in intensity.  The cries for change (even radical change) were heard in crescendo, including within some Christian communities which preached their radical views under the banner of a so-called Liberation Theology.  The truth of the matter is that Western societies were and still are currently being swept by a wave of all types of unethical behavior and corruptive practices, with the general public suffering the consequences. Corruption became endemic.  There lies the main causes of the state of decomposition and frustration affecting the young generations of our age. Let us be clear about this: the great ideas of the Enlightenment, liberté, egalité and fraternité, can only succeed if they are based on a solid ethical foundation, which is lacking in the “relativistic” ambiance which surrounds us.

Can it be said that a forgotten 1930s critique of capitalism is back in fashion?  Francis Fukuyama wrote in his popular book, The End of History, that the great struggle between Communism and Capitalism was over and that the Western liberal ideas had triumphed.6  Perhaps this was a premature statement — even if the Soviet Union collapsed and Marxism ideology suffered a serious setback, the axioms of collectivism, centralization of power, and the increasing role of government are still very much in vogue.

To believe that the prevailing dire situation can be solved through legislation is wishful thinking. It would only imply more regulations and additional government interference.  Unfortunately, corruption exists at the highest level of some governments.  As an example, take a look at Latin America.7 Leaders and Heads of State have to give the example of good and honest behavior. Otherwise, how can you expect the citizens of any country to follow ethical standards when their own leaders violate them?

This reminds me of an anecdote told by St. Augustine in his masterpiece City of God: “When the king (Alexander the Great) asked the man (the captured pirate) what he meant by infesting the sea, he boldly replied: ‘What do you mean by warring on the whole world?  I do my fighting on a tiny ship, and they call me a pirate, you do yours with a large fleet, and they call you Commander.'”8 Can something similar be said of not a few Heads of State and government officials around the world who preach ethics, but do not put into practice what they advocate?

The British government just published a policy paper entitled Against Corruption: a collection of essays. The Foreword was written by David Cameron, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, and it alsoincludes interesting essays and comments by well known scholars and politicians on the threat that corruption poses on the wellbeing and development of healthy, prosperous societies.9  A large majority of the participants in the project stressed the need for additional and stiffer legislation but very few, if any, mention the moral decay which is spreading at an alarming rate in our “progressive” and consumer oriented societies.  Changing structures, increased legislation, and stricter police enforcement, per se, will not go to the root of the problem which can be traced to improper education. Since early youth, starting with the family, children must learn to distinguish right from wrong in accordance with an objective moral code which, through history, has been called natural law.10

Centuries ago, Aristotle said that “the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought. When the age of reflective thought comes, the pupil, who has been trained in ‘ordinate affections’ or ‘just sentiments’ will easily find the first principles of Ethics: but to the corrupt man they will never be visible at all and he can make no progress in that science. Plato before him had said the same.”11

In our relativistic world plagued with the notion that to distinguish right from wrong is a subjective matter, there is a tendency for education to adulterate and degrade Western culture. T.S. Eliot, the well known essayist and social critic, reminds us: “In our headlong rush to educate everybody, we are lowering our standards, and more and more abandoning the study of those subjects by which the essentials of our culture – of that part of which is transmissible by education – are transmitted;  destroying  our ancient edifices to make ready the ground upon which the barbarian nomads of the future will encamp in their mechanized caravans.”12

To conclude, I would like to quote University of Toronto’s Professor of Psychology Jordan Peterson for his insight during a lecture in which he recommended these wise words:  In the midst of all the tragic events that surround us, we must give good example “by trying to be a good person” and not be carried away by the Nihilism of Nietzsche or the Existentialism of Kierkegaard.

 We must follow the example of two of the greatest heroes in Greek mythology: Enneas, prince of Troy, as described by Homer in his epic poem in The Iliad, and Odysseus, the Greek hero of The Odyssey. They are examples of Roman values as described by Virgil: honor, labor and fatum.  The central Roman virtue of pietas was embodied in the moral quality of temperance, filial deference for the “pater familia,” the family and respect for law.

Rome, contrary to the views of many scholars, finally collapsed, not only because of external factors, but as a result of what Professor Peterson calls a lack of meaning in life. Under given circumstances men must accept suffering and bear it with courage and dignity, but above all, and I repeat, by trying to be a good person created in the image of God.  The gradual abandonment of these virtues and the high level of corruption, which became endemic within the Roman Empire, brought about its final collapse.  Let us listen to the vice of wisdom and not ignore the lessons of history. 

1. Etienne Gilson, Foreword  in St. Augustine, City of God, New York, Image Books, 1958. p.18.

2. Johann Goldberg, Suicide of the West, Random House, 2018.

3. “Queen Elizabeth owned silk stockings. The capitalist achievement does not typically consist in providing more silk stockings for queens but in bringing them within the reach of factory girls in return for steadily decreasing amounts of effort.”  Joseph Schumpeter.  Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, George Allen @ Unwin ltd, 1952 p. 67.

4. It was only years later that some of the ideas of the Romantic movement were picked up by the so-called founders of the Young Historical School and the brilliant scholars Werner Sombart and Max Weber. The latter had close connections with the Institut fur Sozialforschung (Institute of Social Research) at the Goethe University in Frankfurt am Mein. The Frankfurt School of Critical Theory was the first Marxist oriented research centre affiliated with a major university.  It began, among others, with a loose group of ideological scholars within Europe’s Communist movement and was one of the major factors contributing to Western cultural decay.  Its original key thinkers were the Hungarian Gyorgy Lukacs and the Italian Antonio Gramsci, followed by Max Horkheimer, Erich Fromm, Theodor Adorno, and Herbert Marcuse.

5. The Austrian School of Economics emphasizes the importance of utility in determining the value of a product. Contrary to the English Classical School of Adam Smith and Ricardo, the Austrian School sustains a subjective theory of value.  Together with William S. Jevons, Knut Wicksell and Leon Walras, Karl Menger can be considered one of the founders of the Marginal School. The Austrian School stands for Liberalism and maintains that performance can be optimized when there are limits to government intervention.

6. Francis Fukuyama, The End of History, The Free Press, 1992.

7. See: Bello, Latin American Volition. Print edition in The Americas, November 16, 2017.  The  Economist – See also: Stop Stealing by the same author in the Economist of May 13, 2016.

8. St. Augustine, City of God, ibid., p.89.

9. Among  many others, we can include Christine Lagarde, The Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund and President Muhammadu of Nigeria.

10. See:  Alberto M. Piedra. Natural Law, The foundation of an Orderly Economic System, Chapter 1, pp.9-38, Lexington Books, 2004.

11. C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, Touchtone Books, 1996. p.29

12. T.S. Eliot Christianity and Culture, A Harvard Book Harcourt, Inc.,1967,  p.185. See also: Joseph Pieper, Leisure, the Basis of Culture, Random House Inc., 1963.