The social norms of bribery

Eleanor Konik

Eleanor Konik

Professionally, I teach world history. In my downtime, I enjoy combining storytelling with my love of sharing obscure history and science.


The following story stands alone and can be read without any knowledge of my prior works, but does involve story elements that appeared previously in Barnacles, in which a young agonarch defies the ghost of his grandfather to implement a new taxation scheme aimed at saving his land from losing all its mages. 

The first thing I learned smuggling was: don’t ask questions.

It worked great until I wound up in front of the continent’s most stringent taxmen, mouth gaping like a fish while they gutted a pregnant spidersow right in the middle of my cargo hold.

Now I make sure to get enough bribe money up front.


I've been on a real kick lately researching and writing about taxes and tax collectors, but according to my notes Stringent is actually the first story involving the yhaolingi, creatures I developed back in 2020 during the spidersilk edition of this newsletter. I was pretty surprised by this actually; they play a fairly crucial role in several ongoing "primordial" storylines, and are a lot of fun.

We'll discuss them more during the Friday Flash edition next month, but for now, I want to talk about bribery.

I still remember how surprised I was to learn that in a lot of places, bribery is taken for granted as the cost of doing business β€” even in America, if you go to Β Las Vegas, offering a front desk clerk a bribe to get a better room is apparently normal instead of grounds for offense, which still surprises me, and honestly bothers me a bit. My one time visiting Vegas rammed home to me just how deeply entrenched a preference for stable institutions, rule-following, and rule enforcement is for me.

It's a fine line, though β€” I'm also often frustrated that I'm not allowed to give holiday gift cards to the lovely folks who take keep an eye on my son when he plays at the local community center, and although I understand the logic I'm grateful that teachers and other public servants are still permitted to accept holiday gifts from the community members we serve. Stories I hear from places that are high on corruption indexes β€” like Somalia, Sudan, Honduras, Russia and the Philippines β€” bother me a lot, and imagining living in those places makes me feel a bit helpless, if only because navigating that sort of bureaucracy is so alien to me.

I'm a lot more used to the "sit on the phone for six hours and wade through six different officials before I get the answer I need" types of bureaucratic inefficiency πŸ™ƒ

I'm not saying that corruption doesn't happen in America, of course β€” and I don't just mean the Boss Tweed style political machine stuff that we tend to think of happening in some distant past. I was once forced out of a job I really liked because of a corrupt government official playing budget games to benefit himself and his patron, and he wasn't even the only corrupt government official to go to jail in my immediate region. It's not limited to one political party, even in my local politics, either. That last link is an old article, but this guy ran for office in the last election cycle, which is why I know about it.

Despite this, I occasionally catch myself thinking that bribery and corruption are distant things that happen to other people. Things I might need need to know about if I'm ever traveling in a foreign country where bribery is common, the same way I double-check tipping norms (which are similar to bribery, yet also weirdly the opposite in restaurants at least, where you tip after the service is complete...)

But college admissions bribery scandals happen here, and so do energy bribery scandals, and jailhouses and prisons are rife with bribery. On the other hand, I am friends with a bunch of first-, second- and third-generation immigrants from places like Russia, Latin America, Greece and Syria, and I know that it really is less common where I am than where they were.

As with the dividing line between "gift" and "bribe," having a balanced, realistic perspective on the state of things like corruption and crime is really difficult. Scott Alexander's recent piece about homelessness in San Francisco rammed that home for me again this week. For smugglers like the protagonist of Stringent, though, an accurate understanding of those norms is crucial to their success.

Further Reading


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