Skip to main content
The Globe and Mail
Support Quality Journalism
The Globe and Mail
First Access to Latest
Investment News
Collection of curated
e-books and guides
Inform your decisions via
Globe Investor Tools
Just$1.99
per week
for first 24 weeks

Enjoy unlimited digital access
Enjoy Unlimited Digital Access
Get full access to globeandmail.com
Just $1.99 per week for the first 24 weeks
Just $1.99 per week for the first 24 weeks
var select={root:".js-sub-pencil",control:".js-sub-pencil-control",open:"o-sub-pencil--open",closed:"o-sub-pencil--closed"},dom={},allowExpand=!0;function pencilInit(o){var e=arguments.length>1&&void 0!==arguments[1]&&arguments[1];select.root=o,dom.root=document.querySelector(select.root),dom.root&&(dom.control=document.querySelector(select.control),dom.control.addEventListener("click",onToggleClicked),setPanelState(e),window.addEventListener("scroll",onWindowScroll),dom.root.removeAttribute("hidden"))}function isPanelOpen(){return dom.root.classList.contains(select.open)}function setPanelState(o){dom.root.classList[o?"add":"remove"](select.open),dom.root.classList[o?"remove":"add"](select.closed),dom.control.setAttribute("aria-expanded",o)}function onToggleClicked(){var l=!isPanelOpen();setPanelState(l)}function onWindowScroll(){window.requestAnimationFrame(function() {var l=isPanelOpen(),n=0===(document.body.scrollTop||document.documentElement.scrollTop);n||l||!allowExpand?n&&l&&(allowExpand=!0,setPanelState(!1)):(allowExpand=!1,setPanelState(!0))});}pencilInit(".js-sub-pencil",!1); // via darwin-bg var slideIndex = 0; carousel(); function carousel() { var i; var x = document.getElementsByClassName("subs_valueprop"); for (i = 0; i < x.length; i++) { x[i].style.display = "none"; } slideIndex++; if (slideIndex> x.length) { slideIndex = 1; } x[slideIndex - 1].style.display = "block"; setTimeout(carousel, 2500); }

Athur Schaffer is a professor and founding director of the Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics at the University of Manitoba

Our Prime Minister claims that only cynics would think his ministers could be bought for the price of a $1,500 ticket to intimate Liberal Party fundraising dinners. I suspect that Justin Trudeau isn't just saying this. He really believes it. After all, in today's world $1,500 is little more than loose change to our political elite or to members of the corporate elite with whom they regularly schmooze.

But is he right? Do you have to be a cynic to think top executives from Big Oil and Big Finance are buying influence when they purchase "face time" with the Minister of Natural Resources, the Minister of Finance or, indeed, with the Prime Minister himself?

Story continues below advertisement

Research on the power of gifts to bias the judgment of decision makers tells an interesting story. Strikingly, what the evidence demonstrates is that even small gifts can be highly effective.

I have lectured on "conflict of interest" to physicians and medical researchers across Canada, the United States and Europe. Surprisingly, no one thinks they can be bought. "I can't be bought for …" is the near-universal refrain from doctors, even when the ellipsis is filled in with substantial amounts of money or exotic vacations.

Physicians are targeted with gifts even more often than cabinet ministers. Big Pharma spends tens of thousands of dollars annually on each Canadian doctor: free samples, free entertainment and free travel are commonplace. These days, the gifts come thinly disguised as "for educational purposes." However, no company gives away its shareholders' money from pure altruism. In truth, it's not education. It's product marketing.

The companies understand what the doctors don't: That these gifts successfully induce doctors to prescribe their products. Similarly, they know that the money they donate to politicians will often result in lucrative government contracts or favourable legislation.

Most politicians, like most doctors, believe they can accept industry largesse without these gifts biasing their judgment. They are mistaken.

When it comes to buying influence, empirical research demonstrates not only that gifts are powerfully effective but also that gift size is comparatively unimportant. Everyone enjoys getting free stuff. But self-interest is only part of the story. When we accept a gift we become, consciously or not, beholden to the person who has given it to us.

Both gift-giving and reciprocity are deeply embedded in our culture. When someone does us a favour or gives us a gift, even something as inconsequential as a free lunch or tickets to watch the Blue Jays, we feel the need to reciprocate. Reciprocity is a basic motivator in virtually every human society. Add private self-interest to the principle of reciprocity and you have a winning combination when it comes to buying influence.

Story continues below advertisement

When politicians and doctors insist that their judgment cannot be subverted by gifts of any size, their indignant denial usually rests on a failure to understand how gifts exercise their power.

When Mr. Trudeau and his ministers accept political donations from the corporate elite, they don't then consciously favour those corporations with lucrative government contracts or special legislative measures. When your doctor accepts a fancy dinner from Big Pharma, she doesn't then deliberately proceed to prescribe drugs she knows to be ineffective or unnecessarily expensive.

What research shows is that although individuals strive to be objective, their judgments are subject to an unconscious and unintentional bias. We may think our decisions are evidence-based, but the manner in which we weigh the evidence becomes skewed in favour of those who have benefited us in the past, thereby making us feel indebted, or from whom we hope to benefit again in the future.

Both politicians and physicians owe us their disinterested judgment. Accepting benefits of any sort from powerful interests is a violation of their most basic professional obligation. Sadly, at the end of the day, that "free lunch" comes with a heavy price tag: the loss of public trust.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies