How Corruption Affects Complex Systems

birch tree with fungi
System Corruption

We usually think of corruption as an individual moral failing, even if several people are involved. Their corrupt behavior was to line their pockets or something similar, and criminal prosecution, if successful, is the proper social balancing for their actions. Which is to say, once the guilty are in prison, the corruption is gone. Except for the social and economic cost of prison.

But in complex systems, corruption has many other effects, and these effects aren’t easy to tie to the moral failings of particular individuals. The other side of the corruption coin, as it were.

Remember, complex systems (say, a forest ecosystem) differ from complicated systems (say, a 787 plane) because the parts of a complex system change when they interact with each other. This makes the behavior of complex systems harder to predict, especially beyond the short run. Simply put, complex systems are adaptive and their future behavior depends on what they run into as much as what they are.

The reason why complex system corruption isn’t easily remedied is because, once corrupt processes are part of the system, they are also part of the way the system continues to reproduce itself. There is no functional equivalent to prosecution and prison for this kind of corruption, even if we get the head of a some cartel, or even if we destroy a particular black market organization.

Example: 30 years ago,black market economies (drugs, weapons, human trafficking, etc.) were relatively distinct from the rest of the economy. Now, the funds created through illegal enterprises are a part of global economic flows, and the capital that results from the black market behavior is embedded in the investment process in a way that makes its origins very hard to distinguish from other economic sources of capital. Bluntly, 4-8 cents of every dollar of your mortgage came from illegal transactions, and there is no way to know which 4-8 cents in your mortgage came from, say, human trafficking. Also, the return on the investment of, say, heroin money, in your mortgage is part of the black market organization’s financial plan, maybe for a sicario retirement plan or organizational expansion of the enterprise, or the rising cost of bad help. Now, even cartels have problems with housing or tech bubbles.

In this way, ordinary economic behavior becomes an important way that black markets persist and even prosper, through mechanisms that require no specific person to be morally culpable.

This isn’t all that corruption does in complex systems. Because all the parts of a complex system are tied together and depend to some extent on each other for their survival, efforts to eliminate system corruption create dependence on the continued existence of the black market. So, in addition to bribes and threats to people who affect the ability of the cartel to do its business, the entire counter-effort to the black markets comes, over time, to need the black market in order to secure jobs, grants, taxes, and other sources of  personal resources.  This dependence is in the vicinity of $100 billion dollars a year in the US and includes far more than drug enforcement jobs. It also includes prisons, rehabilitation programs, etc.

Also, the continuing integration of insurgent terror and black markets expands the financial and moral impact of the original corrupt transactions “down on the corner”.

In this way, the larger ecosystem of black markets, wars of various names on the black markets, and the gradual and increasing use of the resulting money in other kinds of enterprises becomes self-reproducing, and in fact, grows to become a greater part of everyday life for all of us.

Although I think of the above dynamics as interesting in themselves, they have some implications for our future and how we approach survival advocacy for our disability community that aren’t obvious from the discussion above. To get at those implications, we first have to have a deeper understanding of how complex systems age, and why corrupt dynamics like (but not limited to) the big picture ones above are inevitable in old complex systems like me, for example).

Next Post: The Adaptive Cycle and The Aging of Complex Systems

Author: disabilitynorm

hubby2jill, 2dogs, advocate45+yrs, change strategist, trainer, geezer, pa2Loree, gndpa2Nevin

Leave a Reply