The costs of social irresponsibility: The experience of private and public corruption in Latin America

Stan  De Loach, Ph.D.


Your phone has been out of order for three days; you have called repair service from a public telephone on numerous occasions, but no one has ever answered.  You go in person to the telephone company and report the problem.  Three days later, your phone is still not working, so again you visit the phone company.  Two days later, the intercom in your apartment rings, and a man shouts, "I'm here to see about your phone!"  Delighted, even though no mention was made of repairing the phone, you buzz him into the building; but he does not enter. You go downstairs to see why all the inaction.  You find three men there. One repeats their primary task: "We are here to see about your phone.  But we need something for a soft drink."  When you are told that the current price of a soft drink is 60,000 pesos (about $25 U. S.), your jaw drops.  But the men quickly, sensitively reassure you: "We work as a team, so we'll split that three ways."  The extortion is duplicated the next day, when they return to make the repairs they previously saw about.


The rental contract for your apartment is due to be renewed. The rent increase amounts to 100%.  With relief, you recall the phone number for a new government agency dedicated to preventing rent increases greater than the 11% permitted by law.  You visit this consumer protection agency to present your case and the relevant documents.  A lawyer asks how long you have lived at this address and whether you like living there.  "Eight years, and yes, very much," you reply.  Then," says the lawyer, "we suggest that you pay the new rent and don't raise a fuss."


While you, a male, are consulting your doctor, a female nurse enters without knocking and hands the results of a pregnancy test to the physician.  "The results are positive," says the doctor.  "But," the nurse replies, "they ought not to be positive!  She is my sister-in-law, and it is not convenient for her to be pregnant right now."  "Oh," he mutters, "don't worry.  Let me finish with this patient, and we will fix things."  You sense a hint of discomfort in the physician, but you assume that it is merely a projection of your own feeling.


"Two (policemen) pull over a pick-up truck...with 500,000 pesos worth of furniture in the back.  'May I see your driver's license and the car's registration papers(?)' one of the (policemen) asks....  He informs the driver that city regulations require that all cargo must be moved by authorized trucks.... The regulation is intended to keep people from piling their cars high with assorted belongings that block their visibility and present a danger to themselves and other motorists....

"'I didn't know,' the driver claims, passing his...papers to the (policeman)....  'Isn't there some way we can fix this?' the driver asks.  'Can I give you something for a cup of coffee?' he adds, slipping the (policeman) a 5,000-peso bill....

"The bribe...offered is equal to nearly half the (policeman's) daily wage.

"The (policeman) tears up the 5,000-peso note, holds it in front of the driver's face and says, 'This is bad.'  He...tells (his partner) to get in the truck while he goes to a public phone to call the police station.

"The partner gets in the truck and immediately begins lecturing the driver.... 'How are we going to stop corruption if people like you keep offering bribes?'  he asks.  'If you give me that money and I take it, we both fall into the abyss.'

"'I'm sorry,' the driver pleads, wishing he had only offered to go to the police station and pay the fine....  'I did something wrong.  Give me a break.  Can't you just let me go this time?' he adds, knowing full well that if the (truck) is impounded in the back as well as the truck's stereo will be added to his list of worries.

"The lecture and pleading continue....

"As they near the station, the (policeman) says, 'We're friends, right?'

"The driver nods obediently.

"'A gift between friends is entirely different from a bribe,' the (policeman) continues.

"The driver nods knowingly....

"The (policeman) suggests to the driver as they walk over to meet the other policeman that 200,000 pesos would be an appropriate 'gift between friends.'

"'I only have 170,000 pesos,' the driver responds.

"'Whatever you would like to cooperate with will be just fine,' says the other policeman, indicating to the driver to slip the money into his (white) glove."

(excerpted from Zellner, 1989)

A North American friend tells you that she has resigned her position as teacher at a private high school in an upper-class neighborhood. While giving an exam yesterday, she noticed that several students--some seated in the classroom beside their armed bodyguards--began to talk and exchange notes.  On grading the exam booklets, she found nine verbatim replies to the discussion questions; she therefore gave nine students a zero for cheating.  After the exams were returned to the students, the principal called her to his office to demand an explanation.  After she had explained, she was told that she must suffer some cultural misunderstanding, for the students had obviously been engaged in a typical group project. She must, he added, change the failing scores to perfect tens.


"Your home has been broken into.... So you head to the nearest (police precinct) and ask to file a criminal complaint.  To get the clerk's attention, you have to pay 10,000 pesos.  If you don't, you will still be waiting there three hours later, without your criminal complaint.

"Now...suppose you know who robbed you: your neighbor, who swore to you that morning in front of 15 witnesses that he was going to rob you.  You mention this in your complaint and wait for the (public minister) to decide that this person should be detained. You will continue to wait until you come up with 50,000 pesos.  That done, you watch as the (minister) passes the information on to the judicial policeman on duty.  You are sitting down to wait for the imminent confrontation with the burglar, when you notice that the (judicial policeman) isn't out arresting anyone. in fact, he is leaning on his car, eating an ice cream cone.  What on earth could he be waiting for?  What indeed.  You reach for your wallet.

"When the suspect is brought in, he too is permitted to grease the wheels of the system in exactly the same way you did.  Thus, prices go up.  For the right amount, he can walk out of the building a free man and laugh in your face.

This, of course, is supposing the suspect is brought in.  It's not unusual for the (judicial policemen) to have trouble finding someone the first time out, though when you return home you...see your neighbor sitting on his stoop.

"If all goes well and the suspect is detained and processed, you are rewarded with a trial.  Trials involve a lot of money, which you will be giving to a lawyer.  Don't feel bitter towards your lawyer, though: he's not keeping much of the money you give him. But do keep your eye on him: he may be receiving money from your opponent....

(excerpted from Keenan, 1989)

City government calls for elections of new block captains to champion the residents' needs.  Radio and television announcements urge people interested in voting or running for office to see the requirements posted prominently in each block.  Finding neither a list of requirements nor anyone who has seen them, one woman, newly arrived from the provinces, complains to the present block captain at his home.  "But it  is posted!" he calms her, pointing to a large poster hung directly over his bathroom sink.  Later, the election results of 3000 city blocks are declared invalid.  The sale of votes for the price of soft drinks and the victory of incumbents in blocks in which a single vote was cast throw suspicion on the vitality of the democratic process.  From the beginning, you have laughed at the absurdity of voting in this election.


A psychoanalyst reports to you, her patient, her disbelief at the following incident: smelling redolent mangoes for sale by a street vendor, she buys and samples one.  Then she asks how much the vendor would charge for all the remaining mangoes.

"I couldn't let you buy them all," he answers, "for then what would I sell?"


In a discussion group at a conference dealing with authority and leadership in organizations, an intelligent, well-educated chemist laments his recent loss of a job.  He explains that a friend of his was named by the nation's President to head a government agency six years ago and that his friend offered him a supervisory position, which he accepted.  Now, a new President has replaced his friend with a woman, who offered the supervising chemist position to a female friend of hers.  You, as the consultant assigned to this discussion group, call attention to the remarkable similarity of the chemist's situation and that of the person whom he replaced six years ago.  The chemist states emphatically, "I cannot see that there is any similarity whatsoever in that person's situation and my own!"

The nature and effects of corruption in Mxico

In Latin America, corruption is a way of life, a source of national identity, a style of management, a system of government, a culture.  Association with corruption exerts pervasive influence on a nation's family, educational, economic, and institutional life. When corruption is unabashed and everywhere, social institutions are open classrooms for the learning of irresponsibility.  Models of uncorrupt authority are scarce and devalued.  The archetype of the uncorrupt or uncorrupted secular hero or heroine, seemingly a natural product of proliferative corruption, is absent.

Differences attributable to cultural interpretation of what constitutes ethical conduct present a nearly uncrossable boundary.  Citizens of nations riddled with corruption grow largely incapable of conceiving of the judicious exercise of duty, while residents of nations more self-conscious become largely incapable of conceiving of the true scale of subterfuge elsewhere.

When corruption is a norm, a custom, or an amusing ethnic characteristic, the superego or the agency of personality that oversees moral judgment is de-skilled and cannot distinguish improbity as undesirable from an individual or collective point of view.  Nor can the need to appreciate this viewpoint be passed systematically from parents to children or from teachers to students in an effective way.  A society's evasion of consistency in moral matters may form the basis for the belief that one is a victim of corruption rather than an integral part of the conditions that permit and foster it.

In a corrupt society, no consensually established external basis for moral evaluation exists to counterbalance the impoverished individual superego.  The absence or primitiveness of internal and external agencies charged with the mediation of guidelines for just and fitting behavior expedites the retreat from accountability for even elementary responsibilities.

Individuals experience additional difficulty in discriminating between corrupt and uncorrupt because errors of discrimination are too costly.  A view that all persons and institutions are untrustworthy arises from needs to sustain physical life and narcissism; this view functions as a permission and as a self-fulfilling prophecy.  An apparently justified derision of democratic processes and withdrawal from social intercourse ensue.  The world is split into oneself, a victim of corruption, and others, the perpetrators of corruption.  Heightened narcissism is a common defense against the illusion of essential impotence and alienation that irresponsibility creates.  Love and esteem directed towards the image of oneself attempt to maintain personal integrity, which the categorical distrust of individual authority and responsibility undermines.

Moving in a corrupt society corrupts.  One way to escape consequent guilt and shame is to remain perpetually preadolescent in outlook.  This maneuver transforms work into play and ridicules the seriousness of developmental tasks dictating resort to self-reliance, namely separation and individuation.  Corruption is the extent to which one shirks reasonable responsibility in order to maximize security and elude fears of abandonment  (Gabelnick, 1988).

The aim of all forms of corruption seems to be the avoidance of the responsibilities attendant on one's task, role, or authority.  Linguistic form and language usage can facilitate and reflect the divorce from responsibility.  In Spanish, "it became late on me," is the popular equivalent to "I arrived late." "Excuse the forgetfulness" is the circumlocution for "Excuse me for not remembering."  In one Latin American country, a demurring "Don't be a naughty little child!" is a stock retort to such requests that another person fulfill a role-related task as asking a secretary to give his or her boss a telephone message.  Another stock response is to dissemble and consent.  The use of the diminutive noun of address weaves and acknowledges a reciprocally immature relationship; it debases assault on irresponsibility by a charming solicitation to juvenile dereliction.  In Spanish, the use of the subjunctive mood, a tool of contingency and uncertainty, is frequently imperative, because social convention converts the transparent objectivity of the indicative mood to subjectivities optative, future, or contrary to fact.  A major portion of everyday experience, ranging from the penalties for homicide to the price of milk, is unpredictable.  Assuming authority and responsibility under such circumstances is risky.

Corruption destroys trust and replaces it with cynicism, which intercepts trust. Authority must be accorded through a process of mutual recognition.  The delegation of authority solely for the convenience and purposes of the delegators eclipses the recognition of personal authority and responsibility and at once limits the scope of their exercise.  Fairly delegated authority is basic to cooperation.

William James (cited in Lippitt, 1969, p. 42) suggested that "a social organism of any sort whatsoever, large or small, is what it is because each member proceeds to his own duty with a trust that the other members will simultaneously do theirs."  But corruption, which also implies mutuality and interpersonal cooperation, is diametrically opposed to the concept of duty, antagonistic to the concept of trust, and barely compatible with the notion of simultaneity.  Collaboration in a corrupt system ceases to take account of realities outside the egocentric interests of the parties involved; the work task becomes invariably secondary to personal relations, rather than one focus of their existence.

Corruption as social irresponsibility is a misbegotten application of free-market entrepreneurship to the moral realm.  Every thing and every person have a price, which need not be pecuniary, and the price is negotiable without substantial restriction.  At least in fantasy, the transcendent solemnity of life and death is cheapened or bargained away.  Awful respect for these paramount realities fails to guide social conduct.

The motive for corruption is the evasion of personal authority and responsibility because of fearfulness regarding their exercise and unfamiliarity with their mien.  Fear, a regular concomitant of corruption, evokes an inactivity that occasions social stagnation and locks a country into a non-developmental course.  Economic stagnation follows because capital and human resources are not productive or generative.  The popular reaction to shortcomings within the country, "Oh, well, nothing can be done," materializes in the country's image abroad. The leaders' sincerity in transnational negotiation and commitment to partnerships is ever questioned.

A valency or preference for the backward victim role, combined with an internal climate hostile to individual motivation and initiative, kindles economic compassion abroad and depression at home.  Typically, no links are seen on a national level between widespread corruption and economic crisis (Rodrguez Castro, 1988).  Aided by international collusion, apathy and dependence are embodied in the culture's identity.  The institution of a pattern of flight from underlying problems reflects an inadequate solution to the matter of responsibility.  A maana mentality attempts, with little success, to render unnecessary social concern or debate about responsibility and accountability.

International hybridization of corruption occurs.  The startling, unethical behavior of North American government and military officials in collaboration with the contras in Nicaragua no doubt appears less so to residents of Nicaragua, Panam, Iran, or Israel.  The influx of immigrants from cultures in which corrupt practices are rampant may influence the host's mores.

Professionals trained abroad and there exposed to different conceptions of proper self-management often settle outside their native system.  This "brain drain" checks feedback constructive to a country's leadership.  A beneficial approximation of the young and the old, who along with the rich are the traditional carriers of corruption, is disagreeable to the young, who lack respect for elders whose self-serving methods thwart their advance.  Positional identification (Slater, 1961) supersedes identification based on empathy or sympathy, and the continuation of unprincipled role performance is warranted.  When narcissistic identification and identification with the aggressor shape the core of moral development, a society attuned to the role of personal and ecological propriety in a peaceful world order is an inconceivable objective.

Corruption is nourished by silence and secrecy.  People dare not speak their doubts, for no higher authority supports them if they are wrong.  Higher authorities are suspect because they allow the laws and their sanctions to be blatantly abused with impunity.  As it is difficult to respect the authority of others, a positive regard for one's own personal authority is equally untenable, especially because participation in misconduct is a prerequisite for survival.  Indeed, the gravity and spread of corruption may cause inexpressible doubt about the value and maturity of one's identity and existence. Such existential precariousness may lead a people to active participation in economic or military intervention from abroad.

Sweeping social corruption, by raising constant threats to individual security, confines concern to the present and precludes a focus on the future.  Domestic corruption breeds skepticism about the legitimacy of any achievement and any basis for achievement.  Isolationism and provincialism may appear on the national level; but their source is in the insecure interests of the individual. Self-absorption impedes work to solve the global predicaments facing a family, a society, the planet.  An immediate focus displaces concern for the commonweal.

A distaste for responsibility requires adjustment of external realities to fit one's wishes and to circumvent conflict.  A corrupt society, to guarantee tranquillity as a precondition for irresponsibility, confines unresolvable conflict to interpersonal relationships by banishing it from the structure of society, government, and intellectual formation.  The primary task of all work becomes the engagement in interpersonal conflict in an attempt to reduce confusion in regard to the boundaries of authority and role.  Work life is distorted; its attenuated pleasures are weak motivators for the full employment of abilities. Social productivity and enrichment are the victims in this drama.

Understandably, the search for worthy authority figures continues poignant and urgent. Behavioral definitions of authority and responsibility abound, but they are empty.  Authority figures are almost superfluous in any functional sense, because legitimate individual authority is little recognized or promoted; thus, delegation of authority and appeals for accountability are not admissible.  The function of authority figures is constricted to service as figureheads, as stand-ins for unconscious needs, and as scapegoats for epidemic irresponsibility.  They help a corrupt system to temper destructive impulsiveness and shortsightedness.

Lifelong participation in corruption can lead to guilt feelings and a need for giving and receiving reparation. This need fortifies irresponsibility and rationalizes corruption.  Rightful protocol is breached because it might offend or seem too impersonal.  All debts to society are payable on an individual level, for they are owed to those who ease the pursuit of personal aspirations.  The relationship between the concepts of self-determination and interdependence is not given due respect.  The choice between social freedom and social justice becomes less and less agonizing.


Gabelnick, F.  (1988, July).  A question of conscience: The ethics of leadership.  Paper presented at the First International Symposium on Group Relations, Oxford, England.

Keenan, J.  (1989, February 6).  Editor's note: That annoying systemic extortion.  Mexico Journal, p. 3.

Lippitt, G. L.  (1969).  Organization renewal: Achieving viability in a changing world.  New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Rodrguez Castro, I.  (1988, December 31).  Una corrupcin que ya es insostenible  [Corruption that is no longer sustainable].  Novedades, p. A4.

Slater, P. E.  (1961). Toward a dualistic theory of identification.  Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 7, pp. 113-126.

Zellner, M.  (1989, February 6).  A real-life parable: Don't invite "the bite."  Mexico Journal, p. 19.


Sevilla, G.  (1989, February 6).  A fugitive police chief.  Mexico Journal, pp. 23-24.

Zellner, M.  (1989, February 6).  Corruption.  Mexico Journal, pp. 16-18, 20-22.

(c) 1987, 1998, 2016  by Stan De Loach.  All rights reserved.
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