What’s a bribe?

Sam Smith

The collapse of integrity in high places calls for consideration of our language about such matters. Take, for example, the word ‘bribe.’ Most probably assume that to bribe someone you have to commit a crime. Not so.

Dictionary definitions of ‘bribe’ include both criminal and merely distasteful acts:

Oxford English Dictionary: To take dishonestly. To extort. To influence corruptly by a consideration.

On Line Ethics: Something that is given or offered to a person or organization in a position of trust to induce that agent to behave in a way that is inconsistent with that trust.

Merriam-Webster: A benefit (as money) given, promised, or offered in order to influence the judgment or conduct of a person in a position of trust (as an official or witness)

Word Net: Payment made to a person in a position of trust to corrupt his judgment.

In fact, for centuries ordinary people have known exactly what a bribe was. The Oxford English Dictionary found it described in 1528 as meaning to “to influence corruptly, by a consideration.” Another 16th century definition describes bribery as “a reward given to pervert the judgment or corrupt the conduct” of someone.

In more modern times, the Meat Inspection Act of 1917 prohibits giving “money or other thing of value, with intent to influence” to a government official. Simple and wise.

But that was before the lawyers and the politicians got around to rewriting the meaning of bribery. And so we came to a time during the Clinton administration when the Supreme Court actually ruled that a law prohibiting the giving of gifts to a public official “for or because of an official act” didn’t mean anything unless you knew exactly what the official act was. In other words, bribery was only illegal if the bribee was dumb enough to give you a receipt.

The media has gone along with the scam, virtually dropping the word from its vocabulary in favor of phrases like “inappropriate gift,” “the appearance of a conflict of interest,” or “campaign contribution.”

Clearly, by the aforementioned definitions, campaign contributions fall comfortably within the definition of bribes.

Unfortunately, however, words like ‘bribe’ are controlled by courts as well as linguists and teachers and we would be interested in some pro bono advice from lawyer-readers on whether describing a donation to the Bush inauguration as a bribe is considered libelous or not.

If so, then we once again find ourselves in the situation where the outer limit of our behavior is defined not by broad standards of decency but by when it becomes criminal.

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