26 March 2014
Corruption: this time a Democrat
The mayor of Charlotte NC has been arrested and accused of public corruption following four years of FBI investigations and a sting operation in which the mayor, a Democrat, reportedly accepted money and other gifts from undercover agents in return for promises of favors. While I understand the concept of "innocent until proven guilty," it seems wrong somehow that this man, a veteran local politician, was allowed to run for mayor last year while this probe was underway and he was strongly suspected of corruption. In a better system, perhaps, he would have been informed of the investigation and invited to decline any nomination and retire from public life. But I can already imagine someone explaining to me how that power might be abused by law enforcement or the federal government. In fact, today's lesson is not that all Democrats are corrupt, as Republicans may insist, any more than the next revelation of Republican corruption will prove the whole GOP corrupt, as Democrats will insist. The Charlotte case proves instead that, in spite of liberal idealism, no frame of government can guarantee absolutely against abuses of power. Just as the rights of dissidents are never absolutely secure no matter what a country's constitution says, so no rule of law can completely suppress the impulse to use political power to enrich oneself. Different solutions to this particular problem of politics have been proposed. For some, the tendency toward corruption among career politicians is an argument for a kind of plutocracy, on the assumption that very rich people would not seek bribes. Libertarians, seeing that bribery is often motivated by a desire to jump bureaucratic hurdles, would eliminate the hurdles, many of which they see anyway as forms of "rent-seeking" by politicians and bureaucrats, and thus remove the incentive to offer bribes, rendering the willingness of politicians to receive them moot. The libertarian solution is too drastic; to minimize corruption they would minimize government past any really desirable minimum. Modern civilization requires government with strong regulatory powers, but as today's news proves, it requires constant vigilance of those elected or appointed to exercise those powers. It would be wrong to dismiss such calls for vigilance as paranoia or to equate them with hostility to government itself. The bigger the government, in fact, the greater our vigilance should be. The good news about the Charlotte case so far is that we have news. The system seems to work sometimes. The mayor didn't have the influence to suppress the investigation, or the wits to realize that it was happening around him. Maybe every elected official should be made to watch the movie American Hustle until it sinks in that anyone entering your office with a wad of bills could be a Fed. Maybe if they were less trusting in such cases, the rest of us could trust them more.