08 May 2015
If power corrupts, must we do without power?
Since this year began, the Speaker of the New York State Assembly, a Democrat, and the Majority Leader of the State Senate, a Republican, have been arrested on corruption charges. Other legislators are in various levels of legal trouble, and the governor himself is widely suspected of some sort of shady dealings in his handling of a purported anti-corruption commission. New York State may seem uniquely corrupt at its highest levels of government, but what state can claim to be immune? Where does the problem lay? Since much of government corruption takes the form of influence peddling, some suggest that government should have less influence, less power. If legislators or executive officials are taking bribes, some say that by reducing government's power over the economy you reduce the private sector's incentive to offer bribes. But if private actors offer bribes or favors to gain competitive advantages over rivals the fault would seem to less with government's power and scope than with the demoralizing incentives of competition. People say "power corrupts" without seeming to acknowledge that wealth is power. If they mean "political power corrupts," then concentrations of wealth in a capitalist society are concentrations of political power. Acknowledging this doesn't lift any responsibility from the heads of our elected representatives, however. How do we ensure for ourselves representatives who won't become corrupt, especially in a political system in which anyone who wins an election is already partially corrupted by the necessity of soliciting campaign contributions? As we're reminded constantly of the susceptibility of representative government to corruption, we might understand how many people around the world would rather entrust power to one person in the hope that that person will prove incorruptible, or on the assumption that, despite Lord Acton's warning, absolute power does not corrupt absolutely but actually transcends corruption, since under absolute power no one could hope to sway the leader with mere bribes. Of course, Acton had in mind a different sort of corruption that we still have to take into account. The absolute ruler faces, if anything, a greater test of character than the mere legislator, or at least different aspects of his character are tested by his power. The American Founders, or Madison at least, believed no man incorruptible; they instituted checks and balances exactly because, to paraphrase Madison, men are not and can never be angels. But Madison's careful system of checks and balances fails if corruption takes root in every branch of government, or among all the informal interest groups Madison expected to counterbalance one another. That leaves accountability as the ultimate safeguard against corruption, but increasingly the electorate itself is distrusted if not discredited. The right thinks the left electorate corrupt due to its dependence on government spending; the left thinks the right electorate corrupt due to its selfishness. Each side thinks the other corrupted by prejudices or outright ignorance. Regardless of partisan leanings, many worry that "authoritarian" leaders can corrupt the entire democratic process, reducing it to a sham redesigned to keep them in power permanently. Term limits promise no cure when power and corruption are concentrated in parties rather than people, or when the "authoritarian" can change the law to lift the limits on his rule. We seem to have exhausted all options available to us under the "rule of law." While that leaves us with the primal prerogative of the people to rule through raw force of numbers, nature obviously can't guarantee us that the people are right to rise every time they do. All you can do, ultimately, is get rid of the current bastards and hope for the best from the next set, but not for long. We can dream, as so many utopians did in the last century, of a purified people and a purified polity in which public virtue is observed with religious zeal, but too often in those years questionable purification came at an unquestionably terrible price. Should that danger rise again, all you can do is get rid of the current bastards and hope for the best from the next set, but not for long. The sine qua non of democratic republican life, as the Founders often acknowledged, is vigilance, which is itself no guarantee of good government. It is, however, our best way to keep bad government from getting worse, as it always can. You can say some system of vigilance is working now when top political leaders are arrested without revolutionary violence. Perhaps the most constructive political question we can ask now is whether the system can work better and nip such crimes (that wait to be proven) in the bud.