From Liberty Street: An Ancient Delusion
The Abramoff scandals have raised yet again the hoary notion that if we could get corruption out of politics we could have good government. This ignores at least two truths that should be packed into the bones of anyone familiar with history.
First, politics and corruption, though not exactly the same thing, overlap to a degree that they can't exist without one another. Politics is a process by which blocks of people try to get what they want. And anytime a group of people seek their own interest some portion of them, either through rationalization or outright venality, will employ dishonorable means.
Second, good government and honest government are not identical. A good government will try, primarily, to promote the well-being of the population it is constituted to serve. An honest government -- in the sense that nobody is on the take -- can do almost anything. There's no assurance that it will be particularly concerned with tolerance, justice, or mercy.
In the United States now our problem is not corrupt government -- though corruption is clearly present. Our problem is a government which is moving towards serving only a small portion of the population and manages to get away with it because a majority of the people are either ignorant of or indifferent to what the government is doing. We are not trapped by either criminality or governmental incompetence. Rather we are immersed in a failure of democracy. The people's affairs are being managed by those who care little for what happens to the people so long as they're sufficiently well fed to keep the corporate treadmill grinding. Our government is so oligarchic that even if we scrubbed it till it sparkled its effects would change scarcely at all. We can't blame the oligarchs for this. They're just doing what oligarchs always do, what their brains have been fashioned to perform. We have no more right to be angry at them than we do at hurricanes or mice-killing cats.
We need to remember that humankind hasn't devised many forms of government. Once political units grow beyond clans or tribes, there are really only five -- monarchy, theocracy, aristocracy, oligarchy and democracy. And none of them is ever pure. Each is more a tendency than an actual description of how power is managed. There are various combinations that work more or less well. For example, the aristocracy that called itself a monarchy and ruled in Great Britain during the middle part of the 19th century wasn't the worst form of government known to man and had its moments of glory. It's probably not possible to say what is the most vile combination but, surely, an oligarchy masquerading as a democracy is in the running for that title. We haven't got all the way there in America because the oligarchic thrust is somewhat damped by democratic forces. But we've been heading in that direction for the past couple decades. The recent Medicare drug bill is a near perfect example of the stage we've reached. It wasn't enacted to help the people. It was passed to enrich drug and insurance companies. But a bow to democracy had to be made because manipulation of the democratic process is still needed by the government. So some benefits were distributed, but they were doled out in the most complicated and maddening form the bureaucratic mind could conceive. Furthermore, the cost of the whole thing, including the enhanced drug and insurance profits, was dumped on the people in the form of debt. There was not even a suggestion of how it was to be paid for. But once the rich guys got their money, what did they care? A people that will swallow a measure of that stripe will swallow most anything.
It's not hard to envision a couple of guys in bar grousing about how if "those people" (whoever they are) weren't such a bunch of crooks, everything would be okay. That seems to be the standard mode of political discourse. Few stop to ask how or why the absence of corruption would make everything okay. Would getting corruption out of government do anything to get good sense into it? Would it cause the people to pay more attention to governmental action than they do now? Would it result in more effective challenges to the growth of oligarchic influence?
Every form of government is susceptible to its own peculiar form of vulgarity. In a democracy, the chief vulgarity is the fulsome flattery of the people by politicians who seek to manipulate them. It comes about because the people would rather be flattered than informed. Until we the people stop begging to be told we're great and start asking ourselves what our government is doing in our names and with our support, corruption will remain far down on the list of forces that are cankering our public life.
Although he was coming from the elitist right point of view, I think H. L. Mencken said it best in his "Notes on Democracy": "Thus the ideal of democracy is reached at last: it has become a psychic impossibility for a gentleman to hold office under the Federal union, save by a combination of miracles that must tax the resourcefulness even of God. But despite that grim dilemma there are still idealists, chiefly professional Liberals, who argue that it is the duty of a gentleman to go into politics--that there is a way out of the quagmire in that direction. The remedy, it seems to me, is quite as absurd as all the other sure cures that Liberals advocate. When they argue for it, they simply argue, in words but little changed, that the remedy for prostitution is to fill the bawdy-houses with virgins." - John Stark Bellamy II
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