Thursday, April 26, 2012

12 Parsecs

Smuggling is my favorite crime (to study, not to commit). Smugglers risk imprisonment (or worse) to connect buyers and sellers. In the face of state intervention, they boldly mancgere it up, moving goods and services from lower-value use to higher-value use. Two and a half cheers for the smuggling profession (I reserve the half-cheer for those who traffic in stolen goods or other cargo they have no justifiable claim over). How then ought I feel about those officials who aid and abet the noblest of the criminal class?

Consider yet another 2x2 matrix. I argue here that moral intuitions over the legitimacy of helping smugglers is a function of the moral legitimacy of the item being smuggled and the existence or absence of cash consideration. To wit:

                CASH PAYMENT 

             |  YES  |   NO  |
LEGIT     YES|   A   |   B   |
CARGO      NO|   C   |   D   |

I'm sure it's possible to make this pretty using HTML, but I'm far too lazy to figure out how. At any rate, the columns should be easy enough to understand. Cash payments happen when smugglers pay off customs agents (like the recent TSA scandal) to bring contraband past the border. The rows will necessarily be somewhat subjective, as there may be widespread agreement over fissile material, but less agreement over, say, cigars or gasoline. Let me suggest for the purposes of this thought experiment that we pick the Salk vaccine (that's for polio, in case you've forgotten) as "legit" cargo and, oh, explosive poison baby formula as "not legit" cargo.

Case (A) Legitimate cargo plus a cash payment. Morally unsavory, but instrumentally acceptable. Rule consequentialists will object to this on the grounds that systematic bribery and corruption may lead to bad outcomes, but I don't think that's what going on in the minds of most folks. I think they see predatory, opportunistic skimming: corrupt border agents are extracting rents from poor, sick children who need to be immunized against polio. This is, for lack of a better term, scummy behavior.

Case (B) Legitimate cargo with no transfer of funds. Again, ignoring the case of the rule consequentialists, this is as close to virtuous behavior as can be found in this sordid model. The civic-minded border agent becomes a willing confederate of the smuggler, helping the plight of the poor and the suffering. We like this guy. Again, we like this guy to the extent we consider him a humanitarian, all else equal. Note that the agent could be a simple-minded buffoon and we'd probably still feel similarly (maybe... if pressed, I'd be willing to give up this latter claim).

Case (C) Harmful goods bundled with payola. Grotesque. Profiting under the full knowledge that people will be hurt. Boo.

Case (D) Illicit contraband and no palm-greasing. Incompetent. This could be simple negligence, intentional malice or criminal mischief. Whatever the case, we don't like this guy, but at least he's not as bad as (C).

But really, in the top row, kids don't get polio in either case. That's pretty darn good. We should celebrate both the corrupt and the incompetent official on purely instrumental grounds. As far as the healthy kids are concerned, both are good. Yet, we're much more likely to swiftly and severely punish the bribe-taker. Why? Is it really a matter of rule consequentialism? 

How about the bottom row? In the case of the TSA agents above, they could face up to life in prison. What if the drugs had gone through without the bribery? They might get fired, might be brought up on negligence charges, but I doubt it would be a firestorm of controversy. Again, the exchange of cash amplifies extant revulsion, but in either case, the blow still hits the streets, for good or for ill.

So, if you like my lil' matrix, please feel free to use it. If so, please give credit where due: my friends and colleagues Solomon Stein and Charity Joy Acchiardo. 'Twas they that provided the inspiration and much of the heavy mental lifiting needed to write this post. Thanks guys. Naturally, any remaining errors are mine and mine alone.

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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?