Positive rights, negative rights and corruption

Thinking about how to live in a corrupt country is interesting. It looks like there is a choice between playing by the rules and not getting anything done and making up your own rules or succeeding by bending all the rules but becoming part of the problem in the process.  The only way to win appears to be not playing the game in the first place. And this might be a good reason for businessmen from the developed world to be a little wary of trying to enter developing world markets when they are unwilling expect to bribe people or hire people who will bribe others. The foreign corrupt practices act is another reason to make people wary, leaving the only legal way to do business in a relatively corrupt country to partner with people who are already powerful and don't need bribes to get anything done.

One way to think about corruption is to tie to the concept of positive and negative rights.  Negative rights are things that are prohibited from being done to a person, and includes areas such as freedom from violent crime, private property (freedom from theft), freedom of speech and freedom from slavery. Positive rights are things that society must provide for a person. These include areas such as the right to police protection, housing, a job, food and health care. Many positive and negative rights conflict either indirectly or directly with each other. While a police force might help enforce the negative right or protection from violent crime, it also weakens the right to private property by requiring that citizens have some of their money taxed in order to pay for that protection. Societies with many positive rights such as the right to jobs, housing, health care, etc encroach on economic freedom in order to provide those rights and then economic growth generally suffers

So a person living in a corrupt society who wants to get by but doesn't want to make things worse should think of their corrupt actions in the terms of positive and negative rights.

Negative rights corruption would be bypassing or bribing officials in order to do things they should be allowed to do in the first place. This includes bribing officials to get licenses or business permits that are easily available in less corrupt countries.

Positive rights corruption is any corruption that also involves a significant violation of other people's negative rights. 

People and entities who are taking positively corrupt actions are actively making the country worse for those around them, while those who are negatively corrupt are just trying to function in a corrupt system.  Thinking about a few examples might help clarify what this means.

Walmart's actions in Mexico that landed it in hot water for violating the foreign corrupt practices act looks like a benign version of negative corruption since it seems to have merely involved facilitating the permitting and licensing processes (assuming these permits didn't also give them rights to take or pollute onto other people's land).  They were merely trying to do business and were not using the government to steal from anyone. However, the near monopoly in telecommunications that Mexico gives Carlos Slim by keeping costs high for competition is a definite example of positive corruption.

The officials that are underpaid that take bribes where the payees are acting in a negatively corrupt ways are still positively corrupt themselves, since even if they are taking those payments because they are underpaid they are still acting as if the government owes them a job.

When Chinese development companies have local party leaders force rural workers off their land, that is positive corruption. 

In the 1920's, when speakeasies bribed cops to let them serve alcohol that was negative corruption. When they bribed the cops to also shut down competing speakeasies it was an example of positive corruption.

Amgen's history of payments to Congress which helped them get a paragraph put into the US fiscal-cliff deal that will cause the government to pay them half a billion more dollars over two years is a good example of positive corruption that is still legal in the US.

The list could go on, but the point is that there should be an acknowledged difference between the two. The metaphorical line in the sand between good and bad doesn't start with breaking the law, it starts with breaking the law in a way that violates someone else's negative rights. And in fact a study has found that corruption that isn't associated with government characteristics can lead to higher growth in countries with poor institutions.  So those practicing negative rights corruption in the developing world look like they could be a net positive to their societies*.

*This is assuming that there is no slippery slope between committing different types of corruption. Also, perpetuating low level corruption might mean outperformance of countries in similar situations but it could also prevent a step change towards a society with better institutions in general.