White Collar Crime

José Zalaquett

José Zalaquett

Head of the Project at MOOC Chile
Lawyer, Universidad de Chile. Doctor Honoris Causa, by the Universities of Notre Dame and City University of New York.
José Zalaquett

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Since the beginning of the 90s the topic of anticorruption has gained prominence in the agenda of public ethics in different countries. In this year 2015 there have been a number of corruption scandals involving governmental officers and/or businessmen in several parts of the world, including Brazil, the Latin American giant, and Chile, a country with a reputation for low levels of corruption. In view of this, it is appropriate to revisit the concept of white collar crime.

This type of crime has at least three categories:

1. Some undermine the public treasure. Chief among them are tax crimes. Basically they consist of evading the payment of taxes thereby depriving the State of resources needed to function and to finance public policies.

2. Other economic crimes affect the good function of the economy. For instance, (a) transgression of antitrust laws; (b) abusive speculation; (c) disregard for consumer rights; (d) usury.

3. Yet another type of conduct attacks public faith. It may adopt different forms: the falsification of public documents, the corruption of public officials who thus betray the trust of the people, the fraudulent manipulation of information…

Since the 1990s there has been a great development on the field of anticorruption, from the standpoint of nongovernmental organizations, public policies and the academia. As a consequence, the catalog of white collar crimes has expanded. Nowadays it includes acts that previously were tolerated or at least not considered a crime. Among them we may mention the behavior of a public official or of a private agent that may affect the interests of a great number of people, who face a conflict of interests and favor the private interests over their duty to act impartially, or at least do not refrain from taking part in the decision in question. Other acts that have come to be punished as crimes in many countries are the insider trading; the favoritism consisting in preferring less qualified persons who are close to them (relatives, friends, real or potential political clients) to appoint them for public positions or to receive a given public benefit; and the illicit enrichment of public officials, be it because of the embezzlement of discretionary funds, for accepting bribes or through other means.

It has been determined that the white collar criminal does not usually act on the spur of a passion but rather following a cost-benefit calculus. The greater the possibility of a gain and the lesser the probability of being punished (be it because the laws establish low penalties or because the courts of law do not function properly) the greater would be the incentive to commit a white-collar crime. The conclusion is obvious: a real deterrent requires both harsh penalties and strong investigative, prosecutorial and judicial institutions. Besides, of course, it is always necessary to strengthen the culture of public probity and the respect for the law in the society.

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