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What is a Bribe?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 23 March 2014
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A bribe is a form of corruption which involves the promise of money or a favor to someone in a position of power, with the hope of influencing that person's behavior. Bribery is viewed as a crime in many regions of the world, and people who are caught offering or receiving bribes may face hefty penalties. In other regions, the line between bribing and tipping is sometimes rather blurred, which can make it difficult to prosecute people for bribery, or to understand when one has crossed the line.

”Bribe” entered English in the 1300s, in the sense of something stolen; it is derived from the French briber, “to beg.” Around the 1500s, “bribe” began to acquire its current associations with corruption.

There are several reasons why bribery is viewed as a crime. In the first place, accepting a bribe and acting on it is a clear misuse of power, and a dereliction of duty. In egalitarian societies, the thought of greasing the way with bribes is especially distasteful, because it highlights the differences between those who can buy power or favors, and those who cannot. A bribe may also compromise the quality of a transaction. For example, when a construction firm bribes a government official to get a contract, the government official may overlook a company which provides superior or cheaper work, thereby essentially cheating the government.

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Bribes can take any number of forms. Historically, bribes to public officials have been extremely common, and in some regions, this continues to be the case. Bribes also play a role in the financial industry, and even in occupations like medicine, where doctors may be bribed by drug companies to prescribe their products. Politics is also rife with bribery in many region, with people bribing politicians to achieve desired ends, and politicians in turn offering bribes to others in the hopes of attaining specific goals, like winning an election.

Drawing the line with bribes is very challenging. For example, many politicians receive healthy campaign contributions from an assortment of companies and industries. These payments could be viewed as bribes in the eyes of some critics, especially when the politicians vote and act in the interests of their biggest contributors. However, it could also be argued that these companies are certainly entitled to support candidates they like, especially when those candidates have political beliefs which align with the interests of the company.

Likewise, the practice of offering a bribe to ministry officials in some countries is so widespread that bribes are viewed almost like set fees. People who attempt to act with integrity may find that the ministry in question never approves a request or a document, thus forcing them to bribe an official to get the job done. In some cases, such bribes are even tax-deductible, with tax agencies recognizing them as a legitimate business expense.

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