Love Bribes

Africa, and in particular my years in Mozambique taught me this: that bribery and self-interest makes the world go round. Have patience and I will explain.

In a time when it was very difficult to transport goods from Zimbabwe to Mozambique a smart guy called Florencio was selling Zim cement in Mozambique. One day I asked him: ” Florencio, you must have very good friends at the border?”, to which he replied: “No friends, only colleagues”. In Moz they say “gabrito comer onde esta amarado”, meaning the goat has to eat where it is tied up. Another saying is that a river can not flow somewhere without leaving the soil moist. It would have been funny is it weren’t so tragic. Or should I say, it would have been tragic if it weren’t so funny.

A bribe is an illegal or unacceptable form of payment in exchange for a favour. Bribes are normally paid to people in power, at least having power in that moment. The classic bribe is paid to a traffic cop to avoid a ticket or a border official to let something or someone pass through illegally. Often bribes are just paid to save time, since the officials make the legal route so tedious that the normal person prefers the ‘speed up stipend’. I will use the word bribe in my renumeration analogy, because it is a unspoken payment, something done, but not announced or written down.

We all bribe. Always. The distinction between classic or typical bribes on the one hand and ‘smart-bribes’ on the other, lies in the levels of subtlety and guile that builds in reciprocity whilst hiding direct benefits. A bribe (or payment) is socially acceptable when it is hidden. It involves the classic game where one solicits a ‘bribe’ or ‘counter-investment’ by acting blaze or as if you don’t care. There is however a need, we do care, there always is an expectation even if it is unexpressed and even if it is unexpressed to ourselves! For this need not to be a burden we have to hide and disguise it, mostly through a variety of counter offers that appear independent and benign, while in fact they are payments and exchanges. The classic example is the difference between a one night stand and paying a prostitute. The difference lies in the complexity and indirectness of what gets exchange. Cash for sex is too honest and crude to be socially acceptable. The one night stand is also an exchange, but it is a much more complex exchange that could involve some or all of the following: buying flowers, buying food, buying alcohol, needing touch, needing relief from loneliness, needing an ego boost, relieving sexual tension, showing off, proving something to yourself, satisfying curiosity, experiencing grandeur. The transaction becomes complex and in the veil of confusion it becomes acceptable.

The required subtlety in relational bribes includes a creative stretching of time-lines as to seem unrelated. It also requires a variety of exchanges and a play with proportional values as to make everything seem fun, informal and sincere. I will provide an easy and simplistic example. My friend Shaun bought me a Puma golf glove and gave it to me. There were no special occasion, it was just a random gift. And at face value it was sincere, mostly because of its randomness and unconditional giving. At lunch however I offered to pay for Shaun’s meal, and even announced that I will pay to say thank you for the glove. I unwittingly, in my desire to be fair, turned his gift into an exchange or payment. It was probably stupid of me. But again, adding complexity to these payments make them more sincere and fun. I should have waited a week or so and then paid for something or also gave a gift. We are inclined to these counter offers to make sure we don’t look like sponges or burdens, we want to maintain the balance where everyone in a friendship gets a win-win. I think its natural and not even bad. Again, the complexity turns bribes into gifts. A bribe is conditional and causal. By introducing trust and faith, an element of complexity is introduced and ‘investments’ become gifts. It’s actually so obvious that people call bribes gifts. But a gift is not supposed to have strings attached.

Can we take a wider and even more trusting and complex view? One where the causality is so light that what we receive in one relationship, we give in another? Can we be primarily material givers in some relationships and primarily receivers in other relationships? I don’t want to bee pretentiously abstract: Stefan gives me more gifts I can ever give him materially, but the reverse is true in my friendship with Doc. And for each of them, I assume they have reverse dynamics in other relationships. So if we are all smart and sincere, the exchange network becomes larger and more fun, the investments start to look more like gifts than bribes. Gifts are too often conditional and I know this because I often see what happens to gifts if they are not relatively directly reciprocated. I won’t get started on families and rich people exchanging gifts at Christmas time (Im tempted though). I need to point out the obvious that the desired complexity works well when apples are not exchanged for apples. A good example is a congregation member who gives financial gifts to the church and the pastor who (unrelated of course) donates his time and wisdom to the person who made the financial gift. At times intelligence would be welcome, but I must say the absence of intelligence and insight is perhaps the foundation for good humour.

I appreciate honesty when it comes to bribery, just say what you’re doing if you want an immediate return. Despite this pragmatic appreciation for transactional transparency, I really do like people who are willing to play the more complex and trusting game where causality and reciprocity are assumed but seldom spotted.