Does Giving Someone a Free Cup of Coffee Induce Corruption?

In the spirit of Lee Sigelman, I enjoyed a beautiful bike ride yesterday morning which ended up at one of New York City’s famed West Village cafes. While there, I observed a couple of local police officers coming in for coffee, and they seemed to be paying a different price that I was. I relayed this observation to my friend with whom I had been biking, and he responded that normally (he’s a writer, so, much as one would expect from writers in NYC, hangs out in West Village cafes a lot) it seemed the local police didn’t even pay at all for their coffee.

As someone who has a written on corruption, this got me thinking. On the one hand, this seemed like an extremely nice thing to do for local public servants. The police are not highest paid residents of the West Village and they provide a valuable service to the residents and small businesses in the neighborhood, so why not give them a free (or heavily discounted) coffee?

The problem is, where do you draw the line? If three of the four coffee shops in a neighborhood give out free coffee to the police, does the fourth one have to? And if it is OK to give the policy coffee, then how about a bagel? If a bagel’s fine, what about breakfast? And if breakfast is OK, then how about dinner? And why stop there – surely the copy store and the stationary store will want to show their appreciation as well. Some small businesses may not have an appropriately useful gift from the shop for the local police, so why not just give them money? And of course, why stop with the police? The fire department also provides useful services, as do local building inspectors, and so on. At some point, this begins to resemble a much more corrupt society, where cash is needed to secure services that are supposed to be provided by the state.

Ultimately, a coffee is probably just a coffee, and what I witnessed is unlikely to have much effect on quality of governance in New York City. Still, it would be interesting to see if societies that prevent this kind of petty corruption do so absolutely —i.e., not even free coffee given out to local policemen—or if there is some sort of natural break point, below which is just being nice and above which is clearly corruption. When I asked my friend where you draw the line, he thought coffee sounded like a good place: free coffee is fine, everything else is problematic.

But then what about donuts?

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

Joshua Tucker

Joshua Tucker is a Professor of Politics at New York University.