Corruption, the taking of bribes by politicians and government employees and the theft of public funds, is a nearly universal practice. But it is also a spectrum, with come governments having very little corruption, and ranges to governments that exist almost exclusively. South Vietnam (the Republic of Vietnam) during the 1960s is noted for its high degree of corruption. It is generally agreed that government corruption was one of the main reasons the government eventually collapsed and the south was unified with North Vietnam, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
I am reading Understanding Vietnam by Nilm L. Jamiseson and a section on the cultural aspects of corruption in Vietnam explained what happened in a way I had never considered. This contrasts with other histories I read that described the corruption, but implied it was simply due to defects in human character. This new understanding also sheds light on the collapse of the Chiang Kai-Shek regime in China in the late 1940s. It also explains a lot about many of today's regimes, including, on a smaller scale, the behavior of all too many individuals in local government in these United States of America.
It fits in too with what one of my political science professors told me about the Rhode Island state legislature, back in 1974. He said the salaries of the legislators were kept low so that only wealthy businessmen or corrupt political hacks could afford to hold office. To be a full time politician, to server the people full time, elected officials needed major supplements to their incomes. Those could only come from illegal donations, diversions of campaign funds, or outright bribes.
In Vietnam (I will call South Vietnam just Vietnam from this point forward) traditional status was highly dependent on wealth. However, leaders were supposed to show their wealth by providing feasts for their villages, and through other forms of ostentation public distribution of their wealth. In a village economy men competed for status by sharing with the less fortunate. Their families had priority, of course, but it was not too bad of a system.
When the U.S. invaded (invited by puppet governments) in the 1960s the shock to the Vietnamese economy was profound. Government employees, including military employees, changed in a few years from being highly respected and decently paid members of a mainly traditional society to among the poorest citizens.
American privates had higher salaries than Vietnamese generals. For that matter, call girls whose clients were American enlisted men made more money. The influx of American money drove inflation, but while America paid for military supplies and all sorts of economic programs, no one thought to make payments to the Saigon regime to increase the salaries of soldiers and bureaucrats. High-ranking military officers would moonlight as taxi drivers to try to make enough pay to keep their families from losing face due to poverty.
Their wives came to the rescue, and that was also due to cultural traditions. In Vietnam women had traditionally done the marketing and small scale craft making that kept families afloat. Men, mostly, did not engage in business. While men went about their hierarchically controlled, government-dictated lives, women had to do more than make ends meet: they had to maintain their family's status in society. "During the late 1960s and early 1970s it was often impossible to be a dutiful and virtuous family man and a dutiful and virtuous military officer or civil servant ... his womenfolk kept reminding him that prices were up again in the market and the children needed new shoes." Women ran the free market show, which largely consisted of diverting American-donated goods into the black market. "As Madam General called Madam Colonel who called Madam Head Clerk ... the daily flow of money and of goods throughout the country was anticipated and careful plans were formulated for diverting some percentage of this bounty."
This looking deeper contrasts with A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam by Neil Sheehan, which is better at providing insight into the American side of the war. Americans were concerned about the corruption of Vietnamese officials and military men, but their answer was classroom training about the importance of good governance standards. That they paid their girlfriends more than they paid men they expected to die fighting communists did not seem to cross anyone's mind.
In America now there is an argument that public sector workers are paid too much, particularly because they get pensions and medical benefits far more generous than those most ordinary workers get. I think it comes down to individual cases. We want government employees to make enough money to motivate them to come to work every day, work effectively all day, and be immune to bribery. We want there to be enough employees so that the work gets done. Such a system cannot be perfected, only worked toward. We need to keep pay fair. Some want it on par with the private sector, but in the private sector fairness is not an issue. The system favors underpaying those lowest in the hierarchy and overpaying those highest on the corporate ladder. It all comes down to specifics, which vary by locality and job title.
Corruption has its own cultural momentum. Simply raising pay is not a sure way of stamping out corruption. Lowering pay somewhat is not likely to cause most honest civil servants to suddenly be selling their souls. Nevertheless, poor pay in the long run does breed corrupiton and incompetence.
A single word, corruption, encapsulates a wide variety of social pressures. Americans thought that the corruption of Vietnam was due to weak ethical values in the national culture. American soldiers did not need to steal food from peasants to fill their bellies. Their corruption was at a higher level, the corruption of an entire nation by wealth from industrial production and imperialist domination.
That era of American global economic supremacy is coming to an end. The corruption (lack of self-control and external control) of the banking sector and Wall Street almost brought the entire nation to its knees in 2008. The same gang funded Barack Obama's presidential campaign, just like they funded Clinton and Bush before him. So we have had much talk of reform, but very little reform.
Millions of people died violent deaths in Vietnam during the French and American interventions and civil war. Corruption was problem, but it was also a symptom of the larger problems of that era. The problem now is we still have an American economy and government built for imperialism. The cracks in that system will continue to widen as the imperialist overhang continues to crumble.