Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Gifts and Bribes

These materials were prepared for the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics program in Government Ethics by Senior Fellow Judy Nadler and Communications Director Miriam Schulman. The Center provides training in local government ethics for public officials. For more information, contact Hana Callaghan.

What are gifts and bribes?
What do gifts and bribes have to do with ethics?
What ethical dilemmas do gifts and bribes present?
Resources on gifts and bribes

What are gifts and bribes?

Defining gifts and bribes may seem like a simple-minded activity, but, try posing the question another way, and you will see why this is an important issue in government ethics: What is the difference between a gift and a bribe? A gift is something of value given without the expectation of return; a bribe is the same thing given in the hope of influence or benefit.

Because it is often impossible to determine the expectation of the giver, all federal, state, and local officials, both elected and appointed, are governed by rules restricting gifts. In some cases, gifts over a certain amount are disallowed; in others, they must simply be reported. These rules can vary significantly from locality to locality, indicating disparities in each legislature's understanding of when a gift becomes a bribe. (A summary of each state's regulations is offered by the National Conference of State Legislatures.)

Gifts and bribes can be actual items, or they can be tickets to a sporting event, travel, rounds of golf, or restaurant meals.


In this context, it is well for government officials to remember the old saying, "There's no such thing as a free lunch," or even a free pencil. While many scoff at the idea that a pencil or notepad from a developer may influence political decision making, one question needs to be answered: Why does the developer go to the trouble and expense of making these items?

To answer, we can look at analogous experience from another field. E. Haavi Morreim has studied the influence of drug company marketing on physicians' prescribing habits. Her observation: When you ask doctors whether this kind of drug marketing is effective, the answer is always the same: "It doesn't influence me at all. They're not going to buy my soul with a laser pointer." The truth is…this kind of advertising is crucial to sales. A doctor is not going to prescribe something he or she has never heard of, and it's the drug representative's job to get the products' names in front of the physicians."

Similarly, a member of the zoning commission who has been keeping a notepad from XYZ Builders next to his phone will remember the company when XYZ brings a matter before the commission. While no one is suggesting legislation that would prevent doctors or government officials from accepting inexpensive doodads, ethical politicians will recognize that any gift from someone with business before him or her is intended to exert an influence.


What do gifts and bribes have to do with ethics?

Political decisions are supposed to be made on the merits of the case, not based on whether or not the decision maker has received a lovely case of wine from one of the parties. This is a simple matter of fairness. When decision makers take gifts, even if their votes are not influenced, they give the appearance of being on the take, which undermines public confidence in government.

What ethical dilemmas do gifts and bribes present?

People do not go into government work to make a lot of money. Especially at the local level, elected officials may receive only token payment for the number of hours they put into the job. In this context, it is tempting to say that tickets to the local performing arts center or sporting arena are well-deserved perks of office. Some even argue that attending such events is part of the job and crucial to understanding the experience of citizens who use these venues.

On the other side, such gifts may well influence officials when they need to determine whether the performing arts center should expand or whether the arena can add retail outlets that local businesses oppose. Also, such gifts can create a slippery slope, with officials coming to expect VIP treatment and making local businesses feel coerced into offering it so that they can receive a fair hearing.

By the same token, it is incumbent upon businesses to comply with government regulations on gift giving. While it may be common in the private sector to acknowledge important customers with extravagant holiday gifts, this practice is disallowed in the public sphere; the gravel company that tries to reward the mayor of a city that has made a big purchase with 10 pounds of expensive chocolate simply puts the mayor in the awkward position of returning the gift.

Resources on Gifts and Bribes

All Cases on Government Ethics
Articles About Government Ethics on This Web Site
Articles About Ethical Decision Making on This Web Site
Links to Other Sites About Gifts and Bribes

Introduction to Government Ethics Homepage

July 2006


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