Who's Bribing Now?

BUSINESS thrives on fairness. It founders when monopoly control, price fixing, or any other distortion of the much-lauded level playing field occurs.

So it's good news that the 26-nation, Paris-based OECD has moved to strike a blow at one very unfair practice, bribery. (The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development includes as members the wealthiest nations of Europe, North America, and Asia, so we're dealing here with bribers, not bribees.)

The United States has had on its books for years laws against corporations giving bribes abroad. So it was the US that pressed other OECD members to agree to a uniform sanction against bribing: namely, making it illegal to claim a bribe as a tax-deductible cost of doing business.

In 1984 scholarly federal judge John Noonan Jr. published an illuminating history of bribery. Anyone who read it would realize that this morally indefensible but often winked-at act has undermined societies since at least the start of written history. So those who have promised new laws to back their OECD pledge will have to be vigilant in enforcing it. It's already being pointed out that firms can hire middlemen, or find other ways of covering their salesmen's tracks in deals where bribes may unfairly win a big contract.

But the OECD nations deserve praise for taking a strong first step. They have also set up a watchdog committee to make sure member nations pass the required laws. Then it will be up to tax officials and the news media to sniff out any backsliding.

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