Must Colombians be bribed to do what’s right?

A nation, as a society, forms a moral person, and every member of it is personally responsible for his society

Thomas Jefferson

Colombia apparently lacks good citizens; therefore, utilizing the best theories of the business world, the government has decided to offer lucrative monetary incentives to citizens whose information leads to apprehending criminals. But what kind of society would this actually create?

Jefferson was also alluding to “active citizenship,” which the Oxford Dictionary defines as: “a person who actively takes responsibility and initiative in areas of public concern such as crime prevention and the local community.” These responsibilities are assumed to be developed by society. The reinforcing methods, however, are not clear. Although it is reasonable to assume that the initiative is a reward in itself.

Unfortunately, Colombian policy makers appear to be oblivious to this elemental principle without which a civilized and just society can never exist. But most unfortunate of all is the government’s method to induce people to become “active citizens”: offering cash rewards. Such rewards, that work so well (in some cases) in the business world, are ill-suited for societies seeking to become civilized.

In the past, Colombian governments have followed the tactic of offering exorbitant cash rewards to citizens whose information result in the arrest/killing of criminals. These rewards became world-famous in the early 1990s when the government offered US$2.5 million for Pablo Escobar’s head and US$50,000 for his lieutenants’.

In 2002, Alvaro Uribe’s government took this formula to new levels. The FARC’s secretariat members have a bounty of US$3.5 million on them, and anyone can receive cash rewards for divulging any criminal acts. But more telling is the daily rewards offered for any widely repudiated criminal act. The most advertised in past days was the US$7,500 given for information about the rape and killing of a two-year-old girl in Bogotá. As a leading intellectual opined, “the authorities have succeeded in corrupting Colombians to the core by convincing them that everything is bought, everything is paid, everything is for sale.”

Nevertheless, in specific cases rewards may be welcome: when the reward is directed at catching masterminds behind criminal gangs such as paramilitaries, guerrilla, etc. These kind of rewards may more easily incentivize people who are part of warlords/druglords’ entourages to divulge crucial information. If there were no rewards the potential informers may never cooperate. And yet, it may be questionable whether excessive cash rewards need to be handed out. Other forms of payment may be enough for the repentant criminal. For instance, a new identity, protection for their families, etc.

But offering cash rewards for information on any kind of crime may only perpetuate a “de-active citizenship.” The manner in which this takes place is Operant Conditioning: learning of behavior that occurs through rewards and punishment. The danger with this technique is that when the reinforcement (economic reward) becomes absent the behavior rewarded (active citizenship) will decline and the behavior will not be manifested until there is new reinforcement.

Therefore, rewards for any crime regardless of its nature may have some unintended consequences. People may not be tempted to cooperate with authorities when there are not tangible economic benefits, as in other cases. Or people may wait until the authorities offer such rewards before cooperating. In the worst of cases, unscrupulous individuals may stage a crime in order to trigger an economic reward.

The aforementioned costs of economic rewards for society are not implausible; the extrajudicial killings by the Colombian armed forces are a prime example. These killings dramatically increased as a result of secret ministerial directive 029 of 2005 that offered economic rewards to members of the armed forces for killing guerrillas. As a result people trained to protect the lives of innocent civilians committed hideous crimes against those same civilians.

These economic rewards, or the expectation of them, can also be linked to certain extent to a culture of government corruption. Such corruption can be seen in the offering of incentives/bribes to government officials to speed up their job and/or bend the rules. Although given the rampant corruption in government, some may wonder whether such corruption was not responsible for devising the excessive cash rewards in the first place.

An “active citizenship” can be created, as long as the reinforcement is the action itself. Only then can an “active citizenship” be self-sustainable. But perhaps the government does not want “active citizens.” As Mark Twain observed, “Citizenship is what makes a republic; monarchies can get along without it.”

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