Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Why Power Corrupts (aka Reason 858 Why Small Government Is Best)

Mick at Comments From Left Field attacks Fred Thompson - and Republicans more generally- over his buddy who was convicted of some drug dealing felonies 25 years ago. He then goes on to make this statement:

The arrogance, corruption, and just plain stoopidity in the GOP has reached monumental proportions. I suppose there must be a Republican somewhere who isn’t a crook, a friend of crooks, a sexual hypocrite, a would-be dictator, or an extremist religious whacko, but I couldn’t tell you where to find them. One gets the feeling that the the ones not currently under indictment or otherwise embarrassed by revelations of thievery, calumny, greed, or cruelty just haven’t been investigated yet.

First of all: so the guy has a close adviser who was convicted of some felonies related to the War on Drugs 25 years ago- so what? Given the size of the US' prison population and the number of hangers-on that all politicians have (especially presidential candidates), I'd tend to think that most politicians, who are in a shady business to begin with, have close connections to criminals of various stripes. The bigger question when things like this come out is what does it say about the War on Drugs, other than that it's made drug dealing a very lucrative business.

More importantly though, the ad hominem suggesting that all Republicans are crooks, etc. strikes me as particularly out of line. Not so long ago, I remember the Dems being the ones who were most frequently coming up in scandals of various sorts: Abscam, the Keating Five (four of whom were Dems, including all three found to have acted most inappropriately), Bob Torricelli, Marion Barry, the various "Gates" of the Clinton years (some of which were very real), Gary Hart, the political machines in several major US cities, and countless others.

Fact is, the Republicans are a political party dedicated to getting party members elected, just as the Dems are. That is the only purpose for either party; it just so happens that at this moment in history conservatives tend to be Republicans and Progressives tend to be Dems- but those ideologies exist independent of the parties. The problem occurs when people conflate the ideology (which is really a personal philosophy about the role of government) with party dogma (which is geared towards electing and empowering candidates). The result of doing so is usually that the party dogma infects the ideology, and the ideology eventually becomes incoherent.

Rather than making corruption and criminal behavior by politicians a partisan issue, maybe we should be asking what it is about government more generally that creates corruption and attracts criminals. In other words, maybe we should be asking why we continue to be surprised when the old maxim that "power corrupts" proves true, and why we don't do something to diffuse that power. The politician's first duty will always be re-election and maintenance of power since power is what is needed to implement the politician's ideology; problem is, of course, that the ideology will over time become increasingly corrupted by the need to get re-elected or gain more power. And so, over time, policy becomes increasingly driven by doing favors for those who are most useful to keeping you in power or getting you more power.

Since most people think they are good and honest, they rationalize this behavior by adjusting their ideology such that, say, a capitalist ideology (which in the post-New Deal era meant that business groups were the most important constituency for such ideologues) is transformed into a pro-business ideology (which has relatively little to do with a free market ideology). Similarly, an ideology roughly rooted in FDR's Four Freedoms (which meant that labor unions were the most important constituency) becomes transformed into an ideology that is explicitly pro-union and anti-business (which has relatively little to do with the Four Freedoms). Of course, you still pay lip service to your root ideology, but in the process you've changed the meaning of your root ideology.

But when government is small and relatively weak, there is little incentive for your core constituencies to demand favors from you, since there are few favors that you can grant them. It's tough to have even an implicit quid pro quo when there is no quid. To the extent government is necessary, greater decentralization reduces the size of any given quid, thereby limiting the effects of any resulting ideological change to a local area. For the record, this is essentially Madison's legendary argument about faction in his Federalist 10. Of course, the Constitution has no possible relevance 220 years later, so abandoning core Constitutional principles couldn't have possibly had anything to do with the increasing occurence of corruption, could it?