August 16, 2013

What is the difference between a gift and a bribe?

The answer to this question may determine whether a federal grand jury will indict Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell under the 1946 Hobbs Act. Thanks to the persistent reporting of The Post, we know that McDonnell and his family accepted gifts including a $6,500 Rolex watch, a $10,000 engagement gift, $15,000 in wedding catering and a $15,000 Bergdorf Goodman shopping spree, not to mention $120,000 in loans, from Jonnie R. Williams Sr., chief executive of the Henrico-based company Star Scientific. If prosecutors determine that McDonnell made specific promises to promote Star Scientific’s dietary supplement Anatabloc in exchange for these favors, the governor could soon be spending a lot of time in court.

For prosecutors, the key question is whether there was a clearly articulated “quid pro quo.” If so, the gifts were bribes. If not, they were gifts. To me, as an anthropologist, this largely misses the point.

Across the massive cornucopia of human culture, anthropologists have found relatively few universals. One of the strongest of these, however, concerns gift-giving. Gifts are given in all cultures, and to remarkably similar effect. As every graduate student in anthropology learns, gifts by their nature create social ties and a sense of reciprocal obligation. To give a gift is to expect something in return, though it undermines the power and mystique of the gift to spell out too clearly what that something is. It would be uncouth to give a friend a birthday present and say “now when it’s my birthday I expect you to give me this model of this product,” but the expectation of a well-chosen gift in return is no less powerful for that. The failure to give something in response can end a friendship.

Anthropologists have found that gifts create two kinds of relationships: those between equals and those that establish subordination. We see examples of gifts between equals all around us. Husbands give their wives jewelry (or perhaps fishing gear) and get fishing gear (or perhaps jewelry) in turn. A family invites another to dinner and is invited back the following month. Last week, a neighbor gave my wife some basil from his garden, and she returned later that day with cucumbers from ours. Each round of giving creates closer ties.

But there are gifts that one party lacks the resources to repay in kind. Parents give their children expensive toys for Christmas or their birthdays. Children do not have the money to buy an expensive gift in return but are implicitly expected to repay their parents with love and loyalty. Employers give nannies holiday gifts expecting not that they will get a present in return but that the nannies will continue to work hard and loyally. Wealthy, older men buy attractive young women dinners, clothes and vacations. The women might not be able to repay these gifts in kind, but they can give back in other ways. In such circumstances, anthropologists speak of the “poison in the gift,” since one accepts such gifts at the cost of subordination.

When politicians accept gifts such as Rolex watches and Oscar de la Renta gowns from multimillionaires, they often lack the means to reciprocate as equals. Surely, Williams has wealthy friends — his equals — with whom he exchanges gifts, but the McDonnells are not wealthy. From an anthropological perspective, Williams gave McDonnell gifts that the governor lacked the means to repay in order to subordinate him. Unable to afford, say, a $10,000 purse for Williams’s wife in return for what was given to his own wife, the governor can only return Williams’s generosity by lending him the power of his office in some way. Whether the expectation of a return was ever crisply articulated as a “quid pro quo” is really beside the point — even if it is the whole point to lawyers.

The United States’ laws against corruption are premised on a narrow, formalistic notion of said corruption: the wad of $100 bills or the gift given in exchange for a specific promise from a politician. By this definition, there is not all that much corruption in U.S. politics.

But gift exchanges follow a different logic, and U.S. politics is awash in gifts to politicians from wealthy donors who expect something in return. If that something were spelled out too clearly, it would invite prosecution. It would also drain gifts of their magic, which lies in their ability to compel an expectation of return without specifying exactly how the return should be made. That lack of specificity allows politicians to say they are not being bribed, while the undeniable power of the gift enables the wealthy to buy the loyalty of politicians. In this space between the bribe and the gift, corruption can run rampant.

The writer is a professor of cultural studies and anthropology at George Mason University.

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