Why Political Corruption Matters

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(The following is excerpted from the Conclusion of A Republic No More: Big Government and the Rise of American Political Corruption.)

Critical histories such as this must inevitably confront a simple question: so what? If one is going to criticize the practices of government, there must be some kind of net harm that this behavior creates. And, in the case of political corruption, it is fair to wonder if maybe this is all just the necessary cost of doing business.

That was basically Alexander Hamilton’s point to Thomas Jefferson and John Adams when he said of the British Constitution: “purge it of it’s corruption, and give to it’s popular branch equality of representation, & it would become an impracticable government: as it stands at present, with all it’s supposed defects, it is the most perfect government which ever existed.” Hamilton had in mind the use of corruption as a tool for great leaders to induce the self-interested to act on behalf of the public good, but maybe there is a larger point implicit in the background: this is just the way things work. If we want a government that does bold, important things, we must suffer a little corruption.

One also could argue further that, on balance, life has dramatically improved in the United States even as corruption has persisted. To begin, the economy has grown by leaps and bounds since the earliest days of the country; the Industrial Revolution changed everything, raising standards of living for everybody, in due course. So, why should we be so upset about corruption? It does not seem to have inhibited our prosperity; maybe it is in fact a good feature of government. The wheels need to be greased to make things better, under this line of thinking. Furthermore, the country has become much more liberal than the earliest days of the Founding. The Framers talked a boastful game about freedom and equality, but it was only subsequent, “corrupt” generations that ended slavery, granted women the right to vote, put an end to Jim Crow, and finally guaranteed civil and voting rights to African Americans. Why should we celebrate a republican vision that would systematically exclude such a large percentage of the country? And how bad can corruption be with all these groups now welcomed into the body politic?

Take all this together, and one might say that corruption is a problem— in the third world. Here, it is at most a nuisance. The United States is prosperous and open. Corruption has not impeded this, and indeed maybe it has helped.

This rejoinder may at first glance appear persuasive, but it has some serious problems. For starters, economic growth could have happened just as easily with a more republican form of government, and it probably would have been more equitable. So, the real debate is not whether we should have wanted the government to promote industrial development, for instance, but how it should have gone about doing that. And it did not do it terribly well. Consider the economic problems of the late 19th century; yes, the economy was developing on the whole, but there were widespread regional disparities that governmental policy exacerbated. A truly republican form of government would have implemented an updated version of Clay’s American System, something that facilitated growth while also creating a balance between regions and interests.

A similar argument applies to contemporary political economy. While we gladly admit that the country is extremely wealthy, it still suffers from resource constraints. There are a multitude of public problems that go unaddressed or underaddressed because there simply is not the money to do anything about them. Meanwhile, how much does the government waste every year on Medicare or farm subsidies? How many worthwhile development projects were shunted aside so politicians could use earmarks to provide kickbacks to their wealthy supporters? How much did their indulgence of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac contribute to the economic collapse in 2008? How wasteful is the politically inspired design of the tax code? Corruption too often engenders gross inefficiency in public expenditures, and as long as the country faces resource constraints, it is indeed a problem, regardless of the size of the gross domestic product.

As for the liberalization of the body politic, there is no doubt that this has been a positive development. And indeed, a truly republican government depends foremost upon the republican principle, which cannot be realized without the full and open participation of all interests in society. So, excluding women and minorities diminished the quality of republican governance for generations. Even in its ideal form, the republic outlined by Jefferson and Madison would have thus been sorely lacking because so many citizens would have been on the outside looking in.

Still, return to Madison’s take on the principle of majority rule, which he thought was a necessary, but insufficient condition of true republicanism. The state governments of the 1780s were some of the most democratized and liberal that the world had ever seen up until that point, and yet they were hotbeds of corruption. Madison understood that good political institutions were necessary to channel public opinion in the appropriate directions. Without them, the body politic was susceptible to corrupt rule by a fractious majority, even if the franchise was as liberal as it had ever been

These insights have relevance today. Yes, the right to vote has been offered to every nonfelonious citizen eighteen and over. Yes, civil rights are protected today. Yes, society is more open than ever. But has this made the common good easier to achieve? Based on our analysis in the second half of this work, it is hard to argue that politicians now steer the government with an eye toward an enhanced and comprehensive vision of the public interest. Instead, it looks more and more like the massive policy logroll has simply been expanded to ensnare more factions. Everybody can vote, sure; everybody can organize, yes; but the end result is not so much an opportunity to inform the public good, but rather a chance to lobby for your own slice of the pie. Indeed, former Michigan governor George Romney may have put it best when he said:

What did we have originally when the Constitution was written? They asked (Benjamin) Franklin, “What have you given us?” He said, “We’ve given you a republic, if you can keep it.” Now, we didn’t keep it. . . . We’ve got a special interest democracy—a political process that is dominated by the special interests.

That is a very apt phrase: “special interest democracy.” The political process may be more open than ever before, but the payoff to the new invitees is an opportunity to mobilize into interest groups to get a piece of the action. A true republic, on the other hand, would bring all viewpoints into the body politic, and from these diverse views find the policies that benefit the citizenry as a whole. Our system does not do that.

And this is not what the people want; for all of the openness of our system of government today, confidence in it is at an all-time low. Consider the following public opinion data from the American National Elections Study (ANES). For decades, the ANES has asked respondents whether they trust the federal government to do what is right. In 1958, 73 percent answered “most of the time” or “just about always,” whereas only 23 percent said “some of the time” or “never.” By 1980, the numbers had shifted dramatically: only 25 percent said they trusted it most of the time or just about always. In 2012, just 12 percent of the public expressed such confidence. The Gallup poll finds an even more disturbing trend. In 1972, 70 percent of respondents said they trusted the government to solve domestic problems either a “great deal” or a “fair amount.” By 2013, those numbers had fallen to just 43 percent. Per Gallup, Congress’s reputation has suffered the most: in 1972, 71 percent trusted it a great deal or a fair amount, but by 2013, just 34 percent did.

More often than not, people are wont to blame particular politicians in office for the nation’s troubles, but this decline in public consent of the government has occurred across generations. That suggests a systemic, rather than a personal problem. What could that be? Why is it that, with so much democracy, the people think the government still does not serve the interests of the governed? The answers are surely many and varied, but it seems indubitable that this is, at least in part, a public acknowledgment of the problem of corruption.

And so we return to one of the earliest metaphors we used to define corruption: it is like cancer or wood rot. It does not stay in one place in the government; it spreads throughout the system. When a faction succeeds in getting what it wants at the expense of the public good, it is only encouraged to push its advantage. By the same token, politicians who aid them and reap rewards for it have an incentive to do it some more, and to improve their methods to maximize their payoffs. Moreover, these successes inspire other politicians and factions to try their hands at raiding the treasury to see if they can do it, too. Thus, a vicious cycle is created that erodes public faith in government, which further contributes to the cycle. When people stop believing that anything can be done to keep the government in line, they stop paying attention carefully or maybe cease participating altogether. Ultimately, the public is supposed to be the steward of the government, but how well can it perform that task when it no longer believes doing so is worth its while? How does a democratic government prosper over the long term if the citizenry does not trust the government to represent its interests? How will that not result in anything but the triumph of factionalism over the common good?

The Declaration of Independence opens with this bold statement:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

This idea infuses the Constitution itself, which eschews the concept of mixed estates. The legitimacy of our government is supposed to derive from the people, and the people alone, who consent to the government because, they believe, it represents their interests. In its ultimate form, corruption eviscerates that sacred notion. The people stop believing that the government represents their interests, and the government in turn begins to operate based upon something other than consent.

Put simply, corruption strikes at the heart of our most cherished beliefs and assumptions about republican government. That makes it extremely dangerous to the body politic, regardless of what the Bureau of Economic Analysis says about the rate of GDP growth. 

In conclusion...

Jay Cost is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard and author of the new book, A Republic No More: Big Government and the Rise of American Political Corruption, from Encounter Books.

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