Whenever some astounding corruption scandal explodes onto the front pages, the public is aghast and policymakers cobble together new reforms that promise to keep such outrages from occurring again. Occasionally, prosecutors (who are sometimes corrupt themselves) file charges. Soon enough, however, we learn about new abuses—or some other scandal grabs the headlines.
Unfortunately, tamping down corruption is like rooting out wasteful spending in the federal budget. There is no line item titled “waste,” but instead it’s baked into a government that has amassed a $31.5-trillion debt. Likewise, corruption is inherent in a system where officials dole out public money and regulate almost everything we do.
What is corruption? Transparency.org defines it as “the abuse of entrusted power for private gain.” As the website’s name suggests, transparency is a time-tested antidote. But let’s not kid ourselves. Corruption is a fundamental part of humanity. As far back as Genesis, its author discussed it: “And God looked upon the earth, and, behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted his way upon the earth.”
It’s crucial to recognize people can never be made incorruptible. We can, however, design governmental systems filled with checks and balances that limit the temptations. I often roll my eyes at progressives who look at our history and find glaring imperfections, or point to imperfect or corrupt behavior from some historical luminary and use it to undermine the nation’s founding.
Good luck finding any human who passes the perfection test. But the central takeaway is that our founding built structures that limit any official’s unchecked power through a series of independent and divided bodies. It guaranteed rights that applied—theoretically, but with obvious glaring exceptions—to the least-powerful individuals. We have a president, not a king.
A new public-opinion survey published by Cambridge University Press found that “a wide range of the American people, of all political stripes, seek leaders who are fundamentally anti-democratic.” Large percentages said they want leaders who will protect them “by any means necessary.” If that’s an accurate representation, then we’re in for a long period of growing corruption.
The most corrupt nations are, of course, those where dictators, politburos, bureaucrats and security officials can do as they please—and where lowly citizens lack the right to free speech or due process. Our current government may be a far cry from the one the founders designed, but it attempts to limit government power, which is the main source of corruption.
The Declaration of Independence was a jeremiad against corruption: The King “has made judges dependent on his will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries. He has erected a multitude of new offices, and sent hither swarms of officers to harass our people, and eat out their substance.” The king’s minions used their power to enrich themselves, just as modern-day police departments use asset forfeiture to seize people’s cars and cash without convicting them of any crime.
Recently some conservatives, who traditionally strived to conserve the nation’s founding principles, have been tempted by authoritarian promises. Some national conservatives disdain the idea of a “neutral” political system that limits the size of government, but instead seek power to run the table on their opponents. Some have made pilgrimages to authoritarian Hungary.
That’s probably a rather small (albeit creepy) contingent. But modern progressives, who loudly decry our nation’s past and present injustices, seem intent on shifting even more power from individuals to government agents in an ever-expanding orbit of bureaucracy and regulation (e.g., single-payer healthcare and bans on anything that “threatens” the climate).
Early 20th century progressives such as California Gov. Hiram Johnson, the creator of our system of direct democracy, wanted to create the tools to fight against corrupt railroad robber barons. Despite the good-government rhetoric, progressives built a regulatory state that empowered “experts” to re-order society in the name of the “public good.” By giving government so much power, they increased opportunities for the misuse of power. Individuals may be inherently corrupt, but so are the individuals given vast powers over others.
Some corruption is of the illegal variety, such as fraudsters who grabbed billions of dollars in illicit payments from California’s Employment Development Department. That was the result of the government having so much taxpayer cash to hand out—and too little competence. Some of it is legal, as the way public-sector unions have exerted control over our government and enriched themselves with six-figure pensions—or how redevelopment agencies abused eminent domain on behalf of politically connected developers.
Everyone is corruptible, so of course private citizens operating in a market economy must be (and are) subject to the rule of law. But corruption fundamentally is a problem of government power, as official actors use immense powers to help themselves and their allies. If we want less corruption, the solution is obvious: We need less government.
This column was first published in The Orange County Register.