firmly in place has been confirmed through an abundance of historical evidence.
Anti-Corruption & Civil Rights Commission: another mighty authority?
Eliminating corruption among civil servants is such a challenge that determines the fate of a nation. Machiavelli, a renowned political philosopher in the 16th century, once said that to build a nation clear from corruption and irregularities, the government should slap corrupt civil servants with extreme punishment once in a decade as a warning. Every developed nation in the world has succeeded in building a "clean" country. The problem is there is no short-cut to make the nation free from corruption. The only way is to live up with J.S.Mill's advice that most civil servants should become a hungry Socrates, rather than a fat pig.
The transparency of civil servants lags far the level of economic development
Politicians and civil servants may not have a life-threatening cause to live as a hungry Socrates. It may be an excessive demand, considered they also have a family to support. However, most public servants in developed countries try to become a hungry Socrates living with honesty and fairness, rather than a fat pig living with irregularities and corruption.
However, the transparency of our civil servants lags far the advanced level of economic development. We can easily find a number of evidence. According to Transparency International's Global Corruption Report, Korea earned a score of 5.5 out of 10 in the 2009 Corruption Perception Index (CPI), ranking 39th among 180 countries in the world and 22nd among the 30 member nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The world ranking was one notch higher than last year but the score fell 0.1 point, indicating the people's perceptions about politicians and public servants in terms of corruption have barely improved. The average of the 30 OECD members was 7.04 while Korea managed to improve the CPI to the middle point in 2005 before staying still since then. Korea ranked the 22nd among the OCED countries, belonging to the poorest performing group along with Hungary, Poland and Czech. It's a shame for a nation for the world's 10th largest economy.
Other survey results are not much different from those of TI. The nation's Anti-Corruption & Civil Rights Commission (ACCRC) found in a survey of foreign residents in Korea a year ago that 50.5 percent of the respondents believed the civil workers were corrupt. About 58 percent said the public-sector corruption hurt the business activities to a considerable extent. Another poll by the ACCRC in November 2008 showed that 2 out of 10 enterprisers offered civil workers with bribery or entertainment. Major purposes were to keep close ties with government officials (34.8 percent of the respondents), to follow the long-held traditions (25.9 percent), to appreciate for helping their businesses (15.6 percent), and etc. Considering the survey has been conducted by a state agency, it is highly likely that many civil workers are more corrupt in reality.
One of the key characteristics for South Korean civil servants, almost like their identity, is corruption. The reason is that we have overlooked irregularities and corruption as an inevitable evil or a natural custom. The regulation forcing the people to use their real-name for financial transactions, along with the advent of the information era, has contributed to making our society more transparent. Elections are carried out in a relatively clean way.
Good intention but…
Despite the progress, many people still raise questions. Why does politics cost so much? Why does a business man pay huge kickback money to civil servants? Why can we live and do the business in this society without paying bribery? Why does a company carry out a construction project in a more easy and responsible manner abroad than at home? We all know that those inquiries have a common ground that civil servants are too corrupt.
Under the circumstances, we don't have to doubt the true intention of the committee to eliminate corruption in the public sector. One of the committee's major missions is to keep high-ranking officials away from corruption and irregularities. But the committee has failed to live up to its name. The limited scope of investigative authority may be a reason. How can it carry out its duty when it is unable to launch an effective probe even if a corruption case is reported?
Against this backdrop, the committee proposed to revise the bill to step up its investigative power. The revised bill includes a right to investigate a public official's bank account without a warrant and to demand documents for assessment purpose and a structural reform to put the committee, currently under the Prime Minister's office, under the direct authority of the President office. Considering the long-standing stigma of the "Republic of Corruption," its strong will to eradicate corruption via every possible means and sanctions is quite understandable
But it's not as simple as seen at the first glance. The principle of democracy is to examine whether the means to achieve a goal are just, regardless of how grand the cause is. And a good intention does not necessarily bring about a desirable result.
The belief that a powerful authority can eradicate corruption is a fatal conceit
Corruption among civil servants is not a simple system but a complex system in the words of system theory advocates. Simple system refers to a phenomenon that one cause has one result. On the other hand, under complex system, one cause can lead to several consequences and one outcome is caused by several factors.
From this perspective, corruption in the public sector is not simply caused by "greed" or "pleonexia" from Aristotle's words. It's rather a consequence of more complicated factors, including their far-reaching authority over license and the greed of the individuals trying to make use of the officials' power for their personal gains.
In this sense, the issue needs an approach based on the concept of circle, rather than static one. "Circle" means that one phenomenon exists not only as one factor but it is linked with other phenomena. There are two types of circle: virtuous and vicious ones. A virtuous circle makes things better and better over time whereas a vicious cycle worsens the situation.
Let's consider the vicious cycle of corruption. When a corrupt government official demands bribery and entertainment in return for license, a profit-driven enterpriser offers it to achieve his goal. Then the official will raise the stake and the businessman will meet the demand as long as he believes that he can gain more. The enterpriser may go further to more actively allure other government officials with bribes.
The link is too strong to break only with simple punishment and oversight. It's really a fatal conceit if the authorities believe that a more powerful ACCRC can eradicate corruption without considering the concept of "circle" or "complex system."
Revised bill: is the committee dreaming of a mighty authority?
The revised bill has a number of problems against this backdrop. It allows the commission to summon an individual in question for questioning and demand government agencies to present private information about him to assess his integrity. The commission chairman is empowered to speak to the cabinet meeting and present a proposal over its jobs to the Prime Minister when needed.
If the bill is passed, the commission will hold an unprecedented power, far greater than not only prosecutors and police but also the Board of Audit and Inspection directly placed under the President. Its authority will be even more powerful than the "agency for inspecting high-ranking officials" proposed by the Roh Moo-hyun government and voted down by the Grand National Party. The idea of putting it under the direct leadership of the President to protect the people's rights, prevent corruption and ensure more effective administrative verdicts may turn the commission into a "Leviathan" proposed by Thomas Hobbes.
The problem is that it could shatter the framework of the democratic society, "check and balance." Human beings are vulnerable to temptation as they're not perfect. That's why the advocates of democracy have warned against the abuse of power even for a good-willed monarch and strongly called for the separation of power. A mighty authority to eradicate corruption is of course not immune to the temptation of power abuse. We should remember the universal proverb that absolute power corrupts absolutely. Therefore, it's always possible that the commission can abuse its mighty power and even breed more corruption.
A bigger problem is the clause that enables the commission to demand any records of financial transactions without a court warrant when investigating into a corruption case involving high-ranking official, with the financial institutions not allowed any right to refuse. The scope of bank accounts to be chased is very broad and it has no ground for penalizing when the confidential information is misused or leaked. It shows a risk of "moral hazard" whereby they would not take any responsibility for the mighty authority.
The idea of chasing bank accounts without a warrant is especially dangerous. It could pose a critical threat to the people's right of privacy and is not in line with the principle of warrants guaranteed by the Constitution. Interfering with a broad range of an individual's private life for the sake of eradicating corruption in the public sector is against our long-standing vision of freedom and the framework of a state seeking the rule of law.
The strong argument that the state should refrain from excessively intervening individuals' private life is not a demand by some highly independent citizens, privileged class or potential bribe-takers. This is one of the key political ideals long supported by philosophers who have believed an individual's right to freedom and happy life is a natural right. The government should do its best to carry out a limited range of public functions such as maintaining order and providing social infrastructure while citizens, independent of external intervention and protection, have a right to plan their own life and seek happiness.
Therefore, a state authority with a belief that it can freely intervene into citizens' private life for the sake of eliminating corruption is bound to put their autonomous area into a danger. It means the state is not a "serving authority" but an "overruling power." Under the circumstances, the government who can sneakily peep into the citizens' private life is no longer a cherished ideal but an implicit threat.
The ACCRC should keep it remind and recognize that the principle of "too much is as bad as too little" also applies to eradicating corruption in the public sector.■
By Park Hyo-jong / Professor at Seoul National University