TWO YEARS AGO, in a fit of fine moral fury, Congress passed a law making it a crime for American businessmen to bribe foreign officials. Now in something of a morning-after bookkeeper's mood, administration officials are looking at that law and at various others that, though passed for other reasons, end up affecting trade, in order to see whether the political or environmental or moral benefits outweigh the economic costs.
A number of American corporations now do claim, discreetly, that they are being penalized by the law against bribery. Their foreign competitors, they observe, do not operate under similar constraints and have a briber's edge.Perhaps so. There is a tendency to give such complaints greater credence in a period of serious unemployment and a major trade imbalance. It has yet to be adequately demonstrated, however, that the bribery law, rather that uncompetitiveness stemming from other factors, is the villain. And if it is established that business is suffering, it needs to be asked if that is reason enough to change the law.
The law was not enacted, after all, just to satisfy a superior moral instinct, although that element, underlined by Jimmy Carter, was there. It was enacted for pragmatic political considerations as well. A series of bribery disclosures in Japan, the Netherlands, Italy and elsewhere had made it evident that there is a good chance of bribes being revealed and when they are the political fallout can be extremely damaging. A country without a major foreign-policy interest in a place where bribes were being sprinkled around might not have to worry about this sort of thing, but the United States has important foreign-policy interests almost everywhere. If in business bribery is the local wine, once disclosed it becomes a political matter and then it is all vinegar.
In brief, it is a question needing review. What ought to guide the discussion is an awareness that for each decision a price has to be paid. Americans may well decide they wish to project their commercial code or moral standards or environmental laws or antitrust practices beyond the 12-mile limit. They should do so realizing that virtue is not its own reward.