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From the New York Times.

Jobless men pay $500 bribes to join the police. Families build houses illegally on government land, carwashes steal water from public pipes, and nearly everything the government buys or sells can now be found on the black market. …

And the extent of the theft is staggering. Some American officials estimate that as much as a third of what they spend on Iraqi contracts and grants ends up unaccounted for or stolen, with a portion going to Shiite or Sunni militias.…

Abu Ali needed a job. And like many Iraqis, he saw only one employer hiring: the government. A neighbor who was a police officer suggested joining the force. Abu Ali asked how, noting that recruits outnumbered positions. The answer was simple: a $500 bribe. …

At the police academy in September, he said, he discovered that most of his class was from Sadr City and that everyone paid $400 to $800 to join. “There’s not a single person among the 850 people in my class who joined for free,” he said.

His commanders, he added, also now collect the salaries of recruits who quit, a payout of more than $100,000 a month. “No one can stop it,” Abu Ali said. “Corruption runs from top to bottom.”…

Apparently it isn't completely cultural — although bribery in the Middle East is not unknown.

In interviews across Baghdad, though, Iraqis said the widespread thieving affected them at least as powerfully on an emotional and moral level. The Koran is very clear on stealing: “God does not love the corrupters,” one verse says. And for average Iraqis, those ashamed of the looting that took place immediately after the fall of Saddam Hussein, the current era of anything-goes is particularly crushing because almost no one can avoid its taint.

I included this story as an example of unintended consequences because it is the paradigmatic case. Systems may be set up for a given purpose, but since they make resources available, those resources are taken by unintended means and used for unintended purposes.

It requires a culture of honesty and virtue to prevent this sort of thing from happening. But even when people (say they) don't want to participate, sometimes desperation drives them to it. That's apparently the case in present-day Iraq. Cultural controls are no match for the need for resources. So if the resources are available, they will be taken.

The message is that unintended consequences are almost inevitable when resources are made available through mechanisms that can be subverted for purposes for which they weren't intended. That's just how nature works. It's a matter of the world finding the most efficient (short term) way to make use of available resources.

As this example illustrates, short term benefits often produce long term losses. A society built on corruption will, in the long run, be less productive than one built on honest dealings. But it's hard to create such a society when the forces that drive attempts to acquire resources are so powerful. It's like water running down hill. Build a dam, and one can generate power. But building a dam is not easy. In the mean time, it's foolish to complain about nature taking its course when water runs around the dam while it's under construction.