Commentary - June-July, 2007

Politics & Corruption


AP headline of 8/24: “Corruption dogs both parties this year.” This is news? When has corruption not dogged politics? When did this dog NOT bark? When is help received from the government corrupt? When is it not? The attitude of most of the public towards their elected officials is “What have you done for me today.” Doesn’t this suggest a degree of “corruption” in all of us? What percentages of taxpayers have played little games with the IRS at tax time via low-grade “cheating” on their tax returns. How many have sought to hide improvements in their homes from inspectors to keep their property taxes from rising? How many seek little favors from public officials? The examples of petty corruption are legion.


The fact of the matter is that we live in a system in which power is money, everyman has his interest and nearly everyone with an interest has his price. The key question is not whether money passes from one hand to another to support a certain interest but whether that interest is narrowly private or somehow, at least partially public. Put bluntly, the question is: Can we tell our public parts from our private parts? To a degree, don’t we need to look in a mirror, like Pogo, and say “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

The problem we face in really coming to grips with corruption is that we don’t appreciate just how pervasive and insidious it is. Most corruption has quite a business-as-usual flavor. Most of it is quite legal. Those cases that get media attention, like those of Jack Abramoff, Tom DeLay and Duke Cunningham, are the tip of an enormous iceberg, and it’s not one that will melt away just because of global warming. Unless we, the people, understand the nature of political/governmental corruption and turn up the heat, there will be no end to it. Most of corruption in public life is like soft-core pornography – we can look without having to act. Political corruption is like legalized prostitution. Perhaps we’re titillated by the outrageous examples. Perhaps they tend to confirm our increasingly cynical views of what politics and politicians are all about and give us another, ready-made, easy excuse for not getting involved in politics.


The low level and everyday nature of corruption is revealed by an old political saying: “One hand washes the other.” In this respect as in many others, politics is like life. People do reciprocal favors for each other, creating sets of mutual obligations. In politics, relying on such favors is called “cashing in your chits,” almost like playing the lottery except that the expected return is higher. It should be no surprise that gifts of lottery tickets have been used to curry political favor.


This familiar behavior becomes a problem only when private actors try to use their access to public officials to increase the odds that their play will pay off. The problem is widespread because using public power to increase private gain is an old American tradition. Talk of the “public interest” is just that, “talk;” i.e., the sort of BS referred to in the statement “Money talks and bulls--- walks.” Private interest has always been paramount. Adam Smith could imagine that there was an “invisible hand” at work to benefit the public via competitive business enterprise but he was no fool in the political arena. He noted over 200 years ago that, when a number of private interests get together, there’s likely to be a conspiracy against the public. As economists have shown and others known, public goods are fundamentally different from private.


The nub of the issue of corruption is whether public power is deliberately deployed to advance certain, significant private undertakings. Distinguish this from whether a public project; say, a highway, may benefit private parties indirectly. If a smart real estate investor buys property along the highway’s right of way and benefits from his investment, is this evidence of corruption? Probably not, unless the investor and an influential MoC were in cahoots to see the project funded.


So, the basic question we need to ask is: What is the basic purpose of our politics? Is it to benefit those with access to public officials or is it to generate “the greatest good for the greatest number”? Is the role of government to increase private gain or to honor the public interest? What is the “public interest” in a country whose politics is a process of “truck and barter” among private interest groups to see which ones can get the most attention and pull down the most bene’s from government agencies? Until people are clear on the questions and begin to find answers, corruption, like poverty, will always be with us.


Let’s also recognize, however, that most of us are not corrupt in our roles as individual citizens. Most of us want to see what’s best for our communities, states and the country. Unfortunately, most of us are also political bystanders. Politics has become someone else’s game. There’s an old saying, here paraphrased: “If good people stand aside, then turkeys, thieves and fools take over.” Thus, if more people don’t get involved, and some of them run for office, corruption will increase. A certain proportion of those newly elected will be co-opted and corrupted by “the system,” becoming just like those “old pol’s” they disdain -- what happened to many members of the GOP “Class of ’94,” for instance. Politics is about power. Power corrupts.


Political corruption also festers behind closed doors. Open systems are the answer. We need to insist upon full disclosure and enforcement of the public’s “right to know.” Political parties need to join the battle by honoring their platforms. The NH GOP Platform states, for example: “Elect…  candidates who uphold the highest standards of integrity, morality, ethics, responsibility and accountability…Hold the party to it. Another needed step would be to reform campaign finance reform (CFR). Ironically, CFR enshrines money as the “mother’s milk” of politics rather than “the root of all evil.” The value of people’s commitments of time needs to be put front and center of any genuine reform. Lacking these, money necessarily dominates and the people lose. Candidates for Congress need to find ways to put an end to the financial arms race of politics. The fact that it now takes upwards of $1 million to run for Congress is corrupt on its face. Most important, we need to realize that we are not just private citizens. We are public citizens, too, with responsibility for the care of a Republic that is the oldest constitutional democracy in the world.


            PETER BEARSE, author of WE, THE PEOPLE,

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