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Raluca Grigoras | Why we have the politicians we deserve

Romanians have a tendency to always complain about those in power. And I get it since they’re not even trying to hide anymore: they steal and game the system for their own interests instead of improving the lives of citizens.

All of us know this. But often, we don’t go any further. We’re just satisfied to say that they’re bad people, all of them the same, no matter the party, and we can never get rid of them. But what if we asked ourselves why they act this way? I’m not trying to excuse their actions, I just want to understand what motivates them and how we can change these incentives.

So let’s do a little exercise: Imagine you are a Romanian bureaucrat, working a boring administrative job that you don’t like, but is your best option for supporting your family. And you have an uncle, high up within the ranks of the biggest party. He comes to tell you that they’re looking for a consultant in a Minister’s office, and you fit the requirements. Now, they’re aware that the Minister will soon be changed as the opposition will initiate a nonconfidence motion, as is often the case, at least twice a year. That means that you’ll only be able to occupy this position for less than 6 months before the opposition party puts its own experts in your place. So, you accept, and you even attempt to understand how things go and push for policies that improve the country. However, no one else seems to care. They ask you: why bother to try to shake things up? Nothing we do will last anyway, as the next government comes with their own plan, so it doesn’t matter, just do as they say and get your money. They all know they will be replaced soon, so they use their position to ensure greater private pensions after they lose their function and to find a well-paid position for their family and friends. They try to make as much money as possible from the position they find themselves in. So in the end, you give up, and indeed realize that you have the chance to at least secure a comfortable future for yourself and your family because there’s no way you could ever make a change. And that’s how you become exactly like them, exactly what you despised.

Maybe that doesn’t happen to everyone, sure. But let’s say you are the owner of a small corner shop. Since no one ever checks, you follow the advice of more experienced business owners telling you to minimize the number of sales you declare, in order to pay less in taxes. You, individually, did not take that much money – just the little extra you needed to pay the bills and take care of your children. But overall, there are millions of dollars missing from the state budget, which was supposed to go into much-needed infrastructure, better schools, hospitals, and higher pensions for the elderly. All because of citizens like you, all gaming the system just a bit because everyone around you does the same, so why would you say no to a bit of extra income?

Or let’s say one of your family members is sick. Since the public health system is not the most reliable and you fear they’ll leave with more infections than they came in with, you take them to a private hospital. And besides the enormous fees, you borrow some money to be able to bribe the doctor. We don’t even say bribe, it’s just “a small gesture”. Why do you feel the need to do it? Because, again, everyone else does, so you need to make sure the doctor will have the incentive to give the best care to your family member. And in the long run, the doctor becomes used to expecting additional money in an envelope, or else they don’t even come to work. Not worth it! Besides, there’s always someone willing to pay.

In all of these situations, a regular person, one we can relate to, contributes to a corrupt system, keeping it alive and working the way it does now. Why is that? This happens because the mindset that sustains corruption was already formed in each one of us, due to seeing that’s how things go around us. Small acts of corruption become normalized, seen as basic decency and a gesture of gratitude, and bigger acts are justified as: “I had no other choice, and I had no way of changing anything important so might as well look after my own skin”. No one takes responsibility for the way they think and act. It is always someone else’s fault, the politicians’ fault.

But politicians also represent the way the general population thinks. They also come from among us. They would also love to improve the country. But their first priority is to ensure their stability and a good life for their children. And once they are convinced that they cannot change anything of value, then they will also just use the system in their favour. So let’s not worry that much about who is in power – they all come and go, with the same mindset. Let’s instead take ownership of the narratives we tell ourselves, and the way we look at our role in society. When we change the way we think, slowly the collective mindsets shift, and there will be politicians, and experts in all kinds of professions, who will reflect this new way of thinking, and that will start to shift things in the right direction.

But are you willing to change the way you think and behave? To stop complaining, blaming others, and taking advantage of the system wherever you can? To go against the current, resist taking the easy path that your family and environment push you towards? I promise that it’s not easy, but truly life-changing. The only way to change Romania and the world is to change the way you think. And that’s a pretty difficult task, but it’s worth it.

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