What with Britain’s dreadful performance in the PISA educational rankings, there has been comparatively little attention given to another international league table– Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index.

The good news is that Bulgaria and Romania, with whom we will become much more intimate next month, are already in the EU’s top 5 for corruption, placed 2nd and 4th, with Greece, Italy and Slovakia filling out the leader board.

I don’t object to Romanian and Bulgarian EU citizens being able to come to Britain as such, I object to the very idea of these countries joining the polity of which I am a member.

But then I’m not too happy about being part of the same state as Greece and Italy, for the same reason. Perhaps I have to add some sort of caveat here about liking Italian and Greek people, as if not wanting to move in with someone and share their bank account or bed meant you hated them; yet although such a caveat would be absolutely true, corruption levels are a reflection of public morality.

Italians have a great deal of campanilismo, which translates as a sense of concentric loyalty, so that a good Italian is devoted to his village, region, province and only then his nation. It is a word with no English translation, and I’m guessing no equivalent in Dutch, German or the Scandinavian languages. It’s partly why Italy and Greece, while having the best architecture, food and history, and being home to wonderful, warm people, are by northern European standards failed states.

I’m currently reading Paul Collier’s Exodus, which makes some compelling points about the social effects of immigration, and further confirms my (deeply ingrained and prejudiced) belief that economists who make pronouncements on matters of policy while ignoring the social implications are the great charlatans of our age. Collier looks at how game theory applies in different societies and suggests that Nigeria is riddled with corruption and theft because enough people are corrupt (and it doesn’t have to be that many) that it makes no sense to be an honest person.

For societies to avert this situation free-riders need to be punished (shamed, ostracised, prosecuted) by other individuals acting with the support of the rest of society, and almost as importantly, for those punishers not to be punished in turn, as happens in clannish societies where people care more about their family than the well-being of the wider society. Destroying the power of the clans can take a very, very long time; around the North Sea it began a good millennium ago.

Collier also made a point that is relevant both to migration and super-national states. He points out that as well as minorities integrating into a society’s norms, the majority may start to integrate into the minority, if it is large enough, or if its cultural norms give an individual an advantage. He uses a study of diplomats in New York to show that, when a group of people from a more honest society and a group from a corrupt one join together, the former begin behaving like the latter. This is known as Steyn’s Maxim, after Mark Steyn’s comments about ice cream, dog faeces and the UN, and it fits perfectly into evolutionary game theory. Why would you be honest if everyone around you is on the fiddle? This has major implications for welfare, too.

The European Union might work well if it only accepted countries with a maximum level of corruption, which would in effect be a North European Union, but the EU must expand to further pressure troublesome members (ie Britain) thinking of seceding. This month the union will make a decision on admitting Albania, the most clannish society in Europe and with corruption levels off the scale.

How can Albania and Denmark fit inside the same polity? Only an economist would think that a good idea.

Tags: Bulgarian and Romanian migrants, Corruption, Europe, European Union, Immigration, Italy, Law and order, Welfare