All Commentary
Thursday, February 23, 2012

Of Constituents and Clans

“Understanding Corruption,” an article by Lawrence Rosen appearing in the March-April 2010 issue of The American Interest, explained how “corruption” is defined differently in the Middle East from in the West. To an American it would be unethical for public officials to steer government contracts to relatives, while to an Arab it would be unethical not to.

According to Rosen, in the Arab world “[c]orruption is the failure to share any largess you have received with those with whom you have formed ties of dependence. Theirs is a world in which the defining feature of a man is that he has formed a web of indebtedness, a network of obligations that prove his capacity to maneuver in a world of relentless uncertainty.”

Within a tribe such reciprocal relationships and expectations are constructive. When, as is typical in earlier, primitive societies, lives are lived with little material margin of safety, traditions based on mutual ties of indebtedness increase the chances that a tribe will survive. If a hunt goes badly, the hunter and his family do not go without food. Scaling up tribal mores is problematic, however. Trust is rarely extended beyond the tribe; in some ancient languages, the word “stranger” was synonymous with “enemy.”

The Western understanding of corruption is more amenable to a large diverse nation of laws and institutions. In a nation of any size trust must extend beyond the family, tribe, or clan, otherwise transaction costs will escalate and trade will collapse. The problem of nation-building in a region dominated by the tribal ethos is primarily one of forging trust between tribes and shifting loyalties from tribe to nation.

Consider trying to form a nation out of an area in which trust and loyalty remain confined to the tribe. Suppose a member of Tribe A becomes the new nation’s leader. He will select his lieutenants from among those he trusts—members of his own tribe. In addition his tribe will expect to share in his good fortune, which they can only do at the expense of tribes B and C. If the nation is poor, gaining and keeping power could literally mean the difference between life and death, so elections will be hotly, perhaps violently, contested. Coalitions between tribes may form, but will be limited by mutual suspicion, lasting only until one or more of the coalition believe they have gained the upper hand and no longer need the others.

Suppose, however, that Tribes A, B, and C manage to form a stable alliance by agreeing that Tribe X will pay the bills. This works only until members of Tribe X flee the country. What is needed is a new tribe (Tribe Z, say) that can neither outvote the coalition nor leave.

If the word “tribes” is replaced by “special interests,” we could be talking about the problem of sustaining the United States as a nation, not of nation-building in the Middle East or Afghanistan. Make two additional term changes: Replace “Tribe X” with “the rich” and “Tribe Z” with “the unborn,” and the analogy is complete.

Factions and the Founders

America’s founders were very much concerned with the problems that factions, as they called special interests, pose to democracies. James Madison in Federalist 10 defined a faction as “a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interest of the community.”

Factions, he said, are “sown in the nature of man”: “As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed. As long as the connection subsists between his reason and his self-love, his opinions and his passions will have a reciprocal influence on each other; and the former will be objects to which the latter will attach themselves.”

The danger factions pose is that government, a nation’s sole legitimate wielder of force, may give itself to one or more factions, thereby granting it or them coercive and arbitrary rule over others. The source of many if not most of the tragedies in American history has not been differences in opinions, race, sex, class, talent, wealth, or religion. Rather it has been that people divided along such lines were able to subvert government’s coercive power to advance their own ideas and interests through force.

Slavery could not have survived without government’s sanction and support; slave owners were empowered by law to draft private citizens to hunt down and recapture runaways. The Salem witch trials of 1692 were initially conducted by county magistrates and later by a special court established by the governor of Massachusetts. The federal government repeatedly violated treaties with Native Americans when those treaties conflicted with the interests of white settlers. Private companies in the late 1800s and early 1900s were able to prevent their workers from organizing only with the complicity, and sometimes active involvement, of both local police and the military. Between 1907 and 1963 over 64,000 Americans were forcibly sterilized under the “eugenics” laws of more than 30 states as Progressives attempted to rid the population of the “feeble-minded” and other “unfit” human beings. Before the Civil Rights Acts whites were routinely accorded preferential treatment by state and local laws. More often than not government largess was, and is, bestowed on those in control of the two things elected officials value most: money and votes.

Growing Incentives

As government grows in power, so grow incentives for factions to form and to try to bend that power in their favor. Factions find ever-more niches among the various nooks and crannies of the ever-growing, ever-more-complex body of laws and regulations spewing from local, state, and federal institutions. The tribute paid to factions comes from the pockets and freedoms of those lacking government favor. As this exaction becomes increasingly onerous, elections become more important and more vigorously fought, by means both fair and foul. Media outlets become increasingly tailored to the tastes of self-interested parties, reflecting their opinions and providing them with their own “facts.” The resulting information divide further intensifies interfactional disputes as people become convinced of their own moral and intellectual superiority and less able to comprehend other points of view.

As government grows, its employees become an ever larger constituency. In a democracy numbers translate into power, and the power of public-sector unions is growing apace. As The Economist points out (January 8, 2011), “Private-sector bosses are accustomed to playing hardball with unions because they know they can go bankrupt if they don’t. Politicians have no such discipline: they can always raise taxes or borrow from future generations.”

Bipartisan cooperation, so cherished these days, can more easily be achieved when politicians borrow to pay for their constituents’ demands. Everyone can be made happy as long as costs are borne by the unborn. Eventually, though, lenders dry up, bills come due, and government is left with the choice of either printing money and impoverishing voters, or cutting spending and enraging them.

Madison wrote that the Constitution’s restrictions on government were intended to ensure that issues were decided “according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, [and not] by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority.” History, however, is made largely by the struggle over power—power not to ensure justice but to plunder. Government power is the greatest prize of all because it enables legalized plunder. Factions have sought that prize throughout our nation’s history. Two strategies have been proposed for limiting this threat: decrease government’s power, reducing the incentive to abuse it; or increase government’s power, eliminating the ability to abuse it. The problem with the second strategy is that people in government themselves constitute an interested faction. Increasing their power means reducing the power individuals have over their own lives and, in the end, reducing the role of citizens to serving as eggs to be broken and stirred into the State’s collective omelet.

  • Richard Fulmer is a freelance writer from Humble, Texas, and the winner of the third annual Beth A. Hoffman Memorial Prize for Economic Writing for his article "Cavemen and Middlemen," from the April 2012 Freeman