When Billions Beckon: A Quasi-Freudian View of How Corruption Becomes Irresistible
You know when guys like you go down? When you start getting aspirations (John Shaft)
In the wake of the high-profile trials of the past weeks, it is not common to hear people exclaiming (with the requisite amount of outrage) about how ‘unbelievable’ it is that these politicians could be so greedy, so corrupt, so evil. More specifically, we wonder out loud, how can people long for so much money (see note 1)? Why couldn’t these folks take a few million and quit whilst they’re ahead? Why risk being caught by going after so many tens (and even hundreds) of millions?
After reflecting on this, I wonder if it’s the wrong question or at least the wrong framing of the issue. We naturally believe that people are rational and behave with safety primarily in mind.
But — and is this really a surprise? — the truth is probably exactly the opposite. The human animal craves danger and longs to push the envelop even if it brings them right to the precipice.
Did dying babies on cigarette packets discourage smoking?
About a decade ago, our cigarette boxes morphed from glamorous colorful packets into, uh, disgusting posters for horror movies. We used to see all the cool logos and flashy brand designs; now all we see are dead babies, limbs from a mid-air explosion and a throat that resembles the remnants of an assassination attempt.
The question, of course, is: Did any of these graphic photos contribute to smokers smoking less? Everybody already knows the answer: No way.
A smoker will never be deterred just because the packet reminds him of Freddy Krueger’s victims. It’s the same reason why a mountain climber training to conquer Everest is not at all deterred by news or movies about people dying in the Himalayas.
Chances are, these climbers have a whole stash of “deadly” climbing experiences, in their minds if not on their shelves.
A smoker couldn’t give an ash-filled damn about quitting smoking just because he sees a photo of a blackened destroyed lung. Likewise, no Chinese is going to stop ordering Bak Kut Teh simply some Australian study said it potentially causes liver damage.
This is also why it’s fruitless telling a gambler that if he keeps driving up to Genting (or down to Singapore) to dance the Black-Jack gig, he’s going to lose everything eventually. That’s only going to make him drive faster.
The logic works the same in all cases: Violating a norm (about health, finance, etc.) is bad, but not violating can feel worse.
The choice facing the smoker, the gambler, the porn and food addict, is the same. They’re not choosing between Good and Bad. They’re caught between Punishment and More Punishment — and steering towards the latter is downright irresistible.
It’s the same with greedy politicians, isn’t it?
Nobody who’s already stolen two million is going to stop because the rakyat is suffering and maybe it’s better to not keep having ‘unknown’ deposits into one’s personal bank account. Nobody who’s been giving bribes for government project is going to stop giving bribes just because they made the headlines for potential graft.
There’s even something obscenely ‘heroic’ about such extreme acts. It’s that delusion in which we feel we’re achieving a unique kind of ‘greatness’ by doing something nobody dares to, by reaching out to grab something few people dare to dream of.
Sigmund Freud wrote about the death-drive, that irrational psychic push towards self-destruction, which certainly applies in such cases:
People smoke because it may cause cancer. Speed demons drive like Vin Diesel because they may die in a fiery crash. I eat roast duck because I enjoy that space between health and heart disease. Cyclists ride like the wind because it’s (literally) neck-breaking.
Could a similar logic be at work in Malaysian money politics? Far from being perceived as a villain, could the politician who dares to take bribes and cheat the system actually be seen as a hero?
Thus the question is no longer: Why didn’t they stop after stealing a few million? How could they stop when there are billions beckoning?
Note 1: I’m omitting the detailed numbers in this article only because even pre-schoolers should know by now how much people like Najib and Rosmah are guilty of misappropriating.