All Commentary
Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Corruption in Government? Shocking!

It’s funny how the people who push hardest for government intervention in more and more areas are the first to gripe that everything has become politicized. What were they expecting? Did they forget that government is a political institution?

Paul Krugman and Chris Matthews, among other Progressives, are apoplectic because two senators of the minority party held up votes on Obama appointments in order to win pork-barrel projects for their states. This reminds me of Captain Renault’s reaction on learning that people gamble in Rick’s gin joint.

Krugman acknowledges that this sort of thing is old hat, but he is upset that it’s become more common. Perhaps, but it was only a matter of time before the device known as the “hold” would be more widely used. The stakes have gotten higher over the years.

Nasty Fights over the Honey Pot

How in the world could the central government commandeer $3.8 trillion–about a third of it borrowed–without reelection-hungry politicians being willing to walk over their mothers to get at that honey pot? Government is a transfer machine. Do you expect everyone to pretend that it isn’t?

When someone insists he can square the circle, you know you’re looking at a demagogue or a zealot. Same goes for someone who insists you can have a government that exercises plenary power over our lives without generating politics in the most unsavory sense of the word. Today we have two broad political divisions that hold that power and agree on fundamentals. Sure, they have public disagreements over how power (and wealth) should be distributed at the margin between the bureaucrats and the significant interests in the “private sector.” There is no way we can have that sort of system without those disagreements at least occasionally turning bitter.

I suspect that people like Krugman and Matthews know you can’t have big government without nasty politics, but they want to have it otherwise so badly that they feign shock when a senator holds up a vote until he gets a government contract and some superfluous building for his state. Of course, they might genuinely get angry when the faction they dislike behaves this way. However, when their side indulges in such strategies, it’s good Progressive politics. Objectivity is not their strong suit.

People of this ilk showed the same shock when the Supreme Court ruled recently that corporations (for- and nonprofit) and unions cannot be barred from spending political money during election campaigns. (McCain-Feingold outlawed so-called independent expenditures by all incorporated entities, except media companies, 30 days before a primary and 60 days before a general election. The Court said that is unconstitutional.) Progressives are appalled that such entities would try to influence the selection of officeholders in a government that holds life-and-death power over so many aspects of life. Did they think people with interests at stake would just stand by passively? Apparently so, and when the affected organizations refused to do so, the “good-government” crowd opted for gagging them, showing unmistakably how devoted that crowd is to free speech when the chips are down. Now they (and Barack Obama) blast the five Supreme Court justices for saying the gag is unconstitutional.

One need not love big corporations or big unions–both of which derive significant power from the State–to be offended by this restriction on freedom of speech. Remember the slippery slope! Whose speech might next be deemed too influential and in need of restricting? Besides, it’s not as though corporations and unions have no other ways to influence politicians and policies. I suspect that spending during campaigns is the weakest method of influencing the government. Voters still have to go into the booth and mark the “right” ballots, and politicians can’t risk alienating the median voter. As Tyler Cowen pointed out in the New York Times:

For all the anecdotal evidence, it’s hard to show statistically that money has a large and systematic influence on political outcomes. That is partly because politicians cannot stray too far from public opinion. (In part, it is also because interest groups get their way on many issues by supplying an understaffed Congress with ideas and intellectual resources, not by running ads or making donations.) It is quite possible that the court’s decision won’t affect election results very much.

So memo to Krugman, Matthews, et al.: You can’t have the kind of government you want without people inside and outside the halls going to great lengths to get their hands on that power. You know it, and so does anyone who spends five minutes thinking it through. Enough whining already.

Of course, what I just said suggests a way to end the power brokering, logrolling, and influence peddling:

Don’t let government commandeer our resources and manage our lives!

If there were no privileges to sell, there would be no privileges to buy. If I may adapt something musical satirist Tom Lehrer sang about the New Math years ago, “It’s so simple, so very simple, that only a child can understand it.”

I’m sure the Progressives are saying right about now, “Gosh, why didn’t we think of that?”

Progressive Coercion

Well, no, not really. They apparently would rather sacrifice anything to preserve the machinery of social engineering, which they need to realize their grand designs. They rhapsodize about democracy, but their words betray their true preferences. Why else would they insist that Obamacare be passed despite the opposition of a majority of the public? Why do they smugly insist that the only reason the people are against it is that Obama did not explain the 2,700-page plan clearly enough in dozens of speeches?

When will the Progressives realize that although they claim to despise corporate influence in government (check out who supports Obamacare), it is their Progressive ancestors who helped forge the implements of power to which the corporate world has ready access.

This government doesn’t merely breed corruption. It is corruption.

  • Sheldon Richman is the former editor of The Freeman and a contributor to The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. He is the author of Separating School and State: How to Liberate America's Families and thousands of articles.