Kleptocracy is a sad thing


By Basel Kasaby

In addition to democracy, another form of government exists, known as kleptocracy. Kleptocracy usually involves hundreds of greedy individuals caught in a medley of wealth and power with their hands in other peoples’ pockets.

We’ve seen it, for example, in the case of Mbutu, the former African dictator who formed a powerful mob that robbed his people of billions of dollars. Strangely enough, people seemed to love him while he was in power, exalting his virtues and counting their blessings for having him as their leader. Instead of making him a fancy throne, his people lined his pockets with hard currency, which probably ended up in secret Swiss bank accounts.

A similar situation exists in Iraq, where the country’s impoverished citizenry can gape in awe at Saddam Hussein’s palaces, which frequently make international news. These palaces of doom are not only thought to be hideouts for Hussein but also a hiding place for some very nasty weapons and illegal programs. Most importantly, these palaces were built for Hussein after he brought a country that was once rich, prosperous and enlightened to its knees.

The stories go on and on about dictators, leaders and ruling mobs who robbed their people blind. But kleptocracy is not a phenomenon that is confined to totalitarian regimes. It can coexist with democracy, albeit in a cleaner, gentler form.

What about those who lost their life savings in the Enron, Worldcom and Anderson scandals? This is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to individual greed working in tandem with corporate and political power. The democratic process and rule of law seem to soften the problem a little, but it is really no different than what happens regularly all over the world.

Individuals with extreme wealth and power and those close to them speak the same language whether they are in Saudi Arabia, Nigeria or the United States. It would be na‹ve to suggest, however, that all they care about is money. At a certain point, wealth, political power and the legitimacy of the whole system become inseparable. The big smiles on George W. Bush and King Fahd’s faces during their photo ops are indeed genuine, despite all the problems both leaders are facing. They both know the bottom line is the same, so long as they can agree on how to split the pie.

It is important to remember that corporate greed is not exactly the culprit here. A healthy dose of greed is the essence of the system and plays an important role in developing industry and creating jobs. Unbridled greed and theft are not. The hundreds of millions of dollars that Enron and Worldcom executives made in their suspect dealings probably mean nothing to them in terms of material comfort or life necessities. What is an extra boat or another million-dollar vacation home? At the same time, for those who lost their retirement and savings, every dollar means a whole lot more. This is the obvious but painful difference between high rollers and ordinary people. Even though they do not have the means to start over or even hedge their bets, they are treated as equals by the system. After all, when you play the market, losing is part of the game.

The situation is sadder when we consider all the other events that are overshadowing the multitude of personal tragedies brought about by unchecked greed. The prospects of war have all but eclipsed the corporate scandals, even though they affected so many lives. I wonder if it would cost taxpayers less if we were to use tax revenue to build lavish palaces for each of our political and industry leaders instead of lining their pockets with our hard-earned money and forgiving their transgressions while their hands are still in our pockets.


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