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Friday, August 25, 2023

Who Will Guard the Guards Themselves? Widespread Allegations of Government Corruption Highlight an Age-Old Problem

The question of how to hold political actors (i.e., the government) to account is one that thinkers have pondered for millennia.

Image: Anthony Fauci-Public Domain (via Raw Pixel)

Police Lieutenant Jessica Taylor recently announced she was leaving the Seattle Police Department after more than two decades on the force—but she had no intention of going quietly.

In a 15-page tirade she released on “The Jason Rantz Show,” the 23-year veteran blasted Seattle’s mayor and city council, and appeared to accuse the police chief of corruption.

Her letter accuses the Seattle Police Department of being “a breeding ground of lies, deceit, favoritism, and rampant corruption” that, under the police chief’s leadership, has resulted in waste and ineptitude and an escalation of crime. (Violent crime was up 20 percent in Seattle in 2021, Newsweek reports.)

‘Who Will Guard the Guards’

Readers can read Ms. Taylor’s letter (pdf) themselves to determine if the claims against the chief hold merit. But the alleged presence of corruption in Seattle’s political system and police department should hardly surprise us.

Government and corruption go hand-in-hand, and an age-old saying can help us understand why: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes (Who will guard the guards themselves)?

The question of how to hold political actors (i.e., the government) to account is one that thinkers have pondered for millennia. It can be found in the Bible—both the Old and New Testament—as well as in Roman and Greek philosophy. The Polish-American economist Leonid Hurwicz wrestled with the idea in his 2007 Nobel Prize acceptance speech (pdf) and correctly noted the question is properly traced to the Roman author Juvenal, not Plato.

Plato, speaking through Glaucon, naively tells us, “It would be absurd that a guardian should need a guard.” Juvenal disagreed, noting that guards also shouldn’t be trusted, and history has proven him right.

An overlooked part of American history is the long history of government corruption, which increased as state power expanded.

A prominent early example at the federal level was the widespread corruption witnessed in the Grant presidency. Though President Ulysses Grant himself was an honest person, the government had grown so big in the aftermath of the Civil War that President Grant couldn’t stem the flood of corruption in his administration, which included the infamous Whiskey Ring scandal.

That corruption, however, was child’s play compared to Tammany Hall in the late 19th and early 20th century, where “honest graft”—a term coined by New York City political boss George Washington Plunkitt—wasn’t just commonplace, it was openly celebrated and defended.

Municipal and state house corruption went beyond Tammany Hall, of course. And it became so widespread and blatant in early 20th century America that a vast political movement arose to root it out.

In his 1904 book “The Shame of the Cities,” the progressive muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens exposed a shocking level of corruption—”bribery, patronage, racketeering and extortion; passing out favors to friends; lining their pockets at taxpayer expense; suppressing the vote; cooking the books; putting relatives on the payroll; rigging the contracting process, and lying all the while to a compliant media,” in the words of Lawrence Reed.

Yet Steffens, astonishingly, saw the solution to all this corruption as … more government!

‘An Institution of Organized Aggression’

I don’t doubt Jessica Taylor when she alleges her former department struggles under dysfunction and corruption.

Americans have grown increasingly comfortable with big government and the corruption that accompanies it.

A recent report from showed that scientists at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) collected some $325 million from Chinese and Russian entities—and pharmaceutical companies—between September 2009 and October 2020.

“As the most recognized official at NIH, Dr. Anthony Fauci was the face of the third-party royalties controversy. But our investigation was about a lot more than any single scientist,” OpenTheBooks representative Adam Andrzejewski said in a statement.

The Biden administration, meanwhile, is embroiled in a scandal that allegedly saw the president’s son, who has no experience in the energy sector, collecting $83,000 a month to sit on the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian energy exploration company that was being investigated for corruption by Ukrainian authorities. Allegedly with the help of President Joe Biden, who was then vice president of the United States, the Ukrainian prosecutor who was leading the Burisma probe was dismissed. (Read his affidavit here.)

None of this is to say that SPD Chief Adrian Diaz, Dr. Fauci, or President Biden are guilty of ethical misconduct.

But it does raise important questions about the nature of the state and accountability.

The economist Murray Rothbard argued that by its nature, government is an “institution of organized aggression” that “lives parasitically off of the productive activities of private citizens.”

Even if one chooses to reject Rothbard’s pessimistic view of government (even if it rings true), it stands to reason that individual actors in government will use their power to advance their own private interests.

The question then becomes, what should happen when they’re caught doing so?

Most agree they should be reprimanded and/or punished for such actions. The problem is, history shows the guardians have little interest in punishing themselves.

This article originally appeared in The Epoch Times

  • Jonathan Miltimore is the Senior Creative Strategist of at the Foundation for Economic Education.