Corruption: Of Money, Price, and Value

Over the past couple of decades, there is practically no country across the five continents of the world where some corruption scandal or scam has not been exposed or unearthed. The basic underlying motive in all corruption scandals is money – or rather, the greed for it much in excess of the needs of the corrupt.

The common man who is pursuing an honest-to-goodness means of living to feed his mouth and that of his dependents, give them a decent roof and some security for the future is simply flabbergasted at the numbers that are bandied about in corruption scandals, amounts of money which, to use a common saying, he can never even imagine in a dream.

And yet there are people who are dealing with or juggling such numbers regularly. And we have seen also how the corrupt eventually end up. There are many too who probably get away, but that does not alter a fundamental truism that a lot of recent research about happiness is demonstrating: that levels of wealth do not correlate with happiness.

There is confusion about the triad of money, price and value: people chase money thinking that it will give them value. But a little reflection in simple terms will correct some flawed notions we may have about this triad, helped by real life examples.

The year was 1965. Sydney Moutia was doing his PhD at the Gauhati University in Assam. He used to come to Calcutta (now Kolkata) every so often, and would invariably bring along a bottle of the best Assamese rum. He would visit us at the International Students’ House, where we usually met in late Hossenjee Edoo’s room, along with the two or three other Mauritian residents there.

On one such visit he told us about an incident that had taken place a few days before he came down. He met his supervisor, a highly regarded academic, in the morning when he went to the University. The Professor had a worried look on his face and Sydney enquired. Prof replied that there had been allegations that he was taking money to pass students and that was why he was so disturbed.

Sydney, of course, was a mature student, whose relationship with Prof was at a matching level. And this is what he told the latter: ‘Well, the only question that you have to answer is: are you bribable? If you are not, then there is no need for you to worry. If you are, then you are in trouble.’

In another instance, a doctor at Mahebourg hospital was similarly finger-pointed. One day he was doing his morning consultation when he heard shouting outside, causing a commotion among the long queue of patients waiting. It was a woman who was yelling, ‘Laisse mo passer, mo fine donne sa doctere la casse dans so lacaze, mo bizin zoine li avant, etc, etc…’ The doctor could take no more of this. He came out and confronted her. ‘Ki ou pe dire madame, ou fine donne moi casse? Attane la meme, mo pe appelle la police toute suite la…’ At this, the woman started to run away, shouting, ‘Ayo non, mo pas pe dire ou, pas appelle la police…’

We can divide the world into objects and people. Objects can have both a value and a price. People have an intrinsic value – for simply being what they are — and normally do not have a price unless they decide to set one themselves. From a materialistic viewpoint, the worth of an object or a person is estimated in terms of money. Unfortunately, we tend to make money the measure of both price and value.

As a general rule, there is an inverse relationship between price and value: the higher the price the lower the value. For no amount of money, for example, can one buy an object of sentimental value, for example a precious letter or an old photograph: it has no price. Similarly, you cannot put a price on a person of value. That is why we say of a person or of an object that he/it is priceless or invaluable. Think, for example, of Mahatma Gandhi or of a benefactor such as the discoverer of the polio vaccine Jonas Salk. With some notable exceptions (e.g. Bill Gates), the more highly a person is priced the less value he has. Putting a price on oneself according to the amount of money one has, whether through hard work or though unfair means such as bribes, is tantamount to diminishing one’s value.

Because we value people we tend to look down on those who seem to have ill-gotten gains, i.e. not obtained by the sweat of one’s brow. And that is why society also condemns them so strongly. Yet so many people continue to live more by what price they believe they command than what value they may represent to themselves, to their family and to society at large. They are therefore prey to temptations of easy money, blind to the harm that is done and the vicious circle in which they can find themselves: l’appetit vient en mangeant.

The relationship between money and value is illustrated by Juan Mascaro, who was a Sanskrit scholar at Cambridge, England, in the introduction to his book The Upanishads. He wrote: ‘All things on earth, from a flower to a human being, can be an object of love or contemplation, an object of intellectual interest, an object of possession.’ He gave the example of the flower as possession: ‘A flower can be an object of trade: something to buy and to sell for money. This is its lowest value.’ (italics added).

It is entirely up to the person whether he wants to be an object of possession, to have a price tag. The choice is his to be a slave to money or to live within his means and his capacity. If he is ambitious – which is not a bad trait – he can pursue his goal by such means as not to diminish his value. It is a hard choice no doubt, but the only one compatible with peace of mind.

There is a joke that exemplifies this point.

It is about the Irishman who, on being told that the streets of England are paved with gold, lands in Liverpool on a Saturday afternoon. The next day his friend Paddy takes him on a tour of the city. At one spot there’s a 5-pound Sterling note lying on the pavement and they pass by it. Puzzled, he asks Paddy why they have not picked up the note. Paddy’s reply is: ‘We are not supposed to work on the Lord’s day of rest!’

We need not be as basic or as reductionist as Paddy, but at least we can retain the moral from his story!


  • Published in print edition on 14 August 2015

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