Corruption as Convention

By John Wahala on August 3, 2009

In the midst of the debate over state-run health care comes news that blames the steady influx of immigrants for a rise in Medicare fraud.

A top investigator at the Department of Justice tells the Houston Chronicle, "There's a real problem of health care fraud in recent immigrant communities—we see it every day," the official said. "One of the reasons is you're looking at people who don't come up through the educational system, they're impoverished, they think this country is very rich, and they don't view taking advantage of a government program as a crime."

The statistics on immigrant criminality are incomplete and unreliable, providing a muddled picture at best. But qualitative observation may lend credence to the DOJ official's claim.

It has long been held, perhaps a bit hyperbolically, that America is exceptional. Our system of constitutional federalism predicated on the rule of law developed out of distinct social conditions and emerged as a unique alternative to the corrupt systems that have beset much of the world. We are heirs to a legacy of justice that guides our transactions and is backed by unparalleled legal protections. This legacy provides an expectation that governments will be restrained in their actions and private parties will honor their contractual agreements. While there are many instances in which our system falls short, this remains its core intent. Most peoples are not so fortunate.

Although the press has not reported the Houston Medicare fraud suspects' nationality there is speculation that they are from Nigeria, a country rich in oil but "long hobbled by political instability" and "corruption." It is not a stretch to suggest that state-sanctioned vice has always been a part of life for Nigerian immigrants. This brings to mind another oil-rich kleptocracy that accounts for 31 percent of our immigration: Mexico.

Fredo Arias-King, former advisor to Mexican President Vicente Fox, describes long-standing conditions in Mexico:

Mexicans are kind and hardworking, with a legendary hospitality, and unlike some European nations, harbor little popular ambitions to impose models or ideologies on others. However, Mexicans are seemingly unable to produce anything but corrupt and tyrannical rulers, oftentimes even accepting them as the norm, unaffected by allegations of graft or abuse. Mexico, and Latin American societies in general, seem to suffer from what an observer called "moral relativism," accepting the "natural progress" of the political class rather than challenging it, and also appearing more susceptible to "miracle solutions" and demagogic political appeals. Mexican intellectuals speak of the corrosive effects of Mexican culture on the institutions needed to make democracy work, and surveys reveal that most of the population accepts and expects corruption from the political class. A sociological study conducted throughout the region found that Latin Americans are indeed highly susceptible to clientelismo, or partaking in patron-client relations, and that Mexico was high even by regional standards.

The expectation of corruption back home is why many Mexicans desire to come here. But ingrained prejudices are difficult to overcome. Even victims often imitate their oppressors. And thus it seems reasonable to surmise that the patron-client relationship, instilled for generations, is the lens in which some Mexicans view the state. Through such a lens, exploiting a federal subsidy is at worst a morally neutral activity necessary for survival.

Mr. Arias-King predicts that this phenomenon will slowly alter our institutions: "In the end, the result of mass Latin American immigration will not likely present the stark choice of democracy versus non-democracy for the United States, but the quality of democracy may indeed be affected."

This challenge is a concern for immigrants from other parts of the world. For example, sociologist Lydia Rosner describes the predisposition of Russians raised in a society destroyed by communism in a similar way:

This common understanding that the establishment is crooked and that laws are enforced erratically and in a discretionary fashion persuades the population that the only way to succeed is through circumvention of official procedures and law ... What we have studied is a population that has immigrated from a society in which a very large number of its ordinary citizens see what is officially defined as crime as an ordinary and not immoral response.

One could cite numerous examples from other regions. The recognition of these worldviews should give us pause. They offer a glimpse at the privilege we enjoy. And they show how fragile this privilege is. Of course many immigrants of yesteryear came from similar conditions but the great wave they comprised was abruptly curtailed, giving them an opportunity to absorb American values. Our current immigration policy should reflect this reality. The number of newcomers we welcome should correspond to the number we can successfully integrate into our civic heritage.