Srilankan Freeloaders

A picture of cops

From the guy who ‘helps’ you park at a random location in Colombo and then snidely asks for payment for a service you never noticed him doing, to the hustlers outside airports who get you taxi’s but yelling and waving their arms about, freeloaders (economic term, rent seekers) are everywhere.

There are rent seekers all over the country, hidden in little nooks and corners, sucking a little juice out of your paycheck every time you come close to them. Most of them you don’t notice, most of them you will only notice when you’re in trouble; because most of them can be found in the government service.

In the government service, ‘rent-seeking’ is the technical term for a bribe. You bribe the clerk to do his job, and to move your file to the top of a pile. When you get your driving license you have to invariably slip a bribe to the guy who tests you. This is regardless of your performance in the test; of course if you fail miserably then they kick you out and return the bribe so at least we can be reasonably sure that there aren’t any real malcontents driving around.

The Real Bad Boys

But there’s a brand of rent seeker that is far more devious and conniving. They are the bigger versions of the smaller rent seekers we just talked about. The simple ‘parking assistant’ or government clerk pales in comparison to the vested interests of these bad boys.  They are the grafters, the influence peddlers and the hoodlums in business and national suits.

Like, It is no secret that politicians love commissions. Ever thought why we continuously pick Chinese contractors despite the abusive loan rates? Hint; It’s not the superior quality. I heard from a friend who heard it from a parliamentarian that the Chinese offer commissions of up to thirty percent of the contract value, while the Indians only offer ten percent.

In an environment so lacking in transparency and accountability as ours, commissions and other vested interests are the only deciding factor in politicians’ decisions. Contracts that should be made with the best interests of the people in mind are made in line with the best interests of political pocket lining.

Influence Peddlers

Organized groups of influence peddlers are also known by the more civilized term ‘lobbyists’ in more ‘developed’ governments. Here in the paradise isle everyone is an influence peddler. Law and order rests completely at the mercy of an elaborate network of contacts. Even a little influence goes a long way. The letter of the law is a book shut up in a medicine cabinet, only to be pulled out to prosecute the non-connected or the scapegoat.

Influential people get government contracts; influential people get licenses to open gas stations, hotels and supermarkets. Influential people can mobilize law enforcement officials (being rent seekers themselves) through bribes and threats to protect business interests; protection that should have been given free to anyone with a business, influential or no.

When vested interest is rampant corruption becomes commonplace. Otherwise uncorrupt people become corrupted too because there is really no other way to participate in the economy. It can shut out the brainiest and most capable and only let the unscrupulous and devious in; reducing overall productivity, widening the wealth gap and grossly increasing poverty. In Philippines a study has shown that rent seekers have contributed to poverty in the county for over fifty years.

The Real Problem; Anything for free

But the problem is not just a problem of a few bad apples in the pile. The real problem here is that it is an attitude that shockingly permeates everything from the highest echelons of the economy to the lowest, most widespread parts of society in Sri Lanka. We’re all influence peddlers in our own way. We all give bribes and pull strings if we have the opportunity, and most of us don’t balk at getting away with a violation if we can.

If the people in the country are themselves prone to operating on vested interests, rather than interests that benefit the whole of society, then our leaders and business elite will do the same. The damage increases with the power of the person doing it and so you have another social disease that causes untold damage to all concerned in the long term.

Every time you bribe someone you exacerbate the disease, every time you stand by and let injustice go unpunished you make it worse.


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