25 August 2008

Corruption, Virtue, and the Whigs

Whenever I come across a story on Congressional corruption, I try to mention it and to link to it here. If I were to keep track of all of them, it would be at least a part-time job. Congressmen tend to become wealthier as they spend time in office, and they don't get paid that much money. That's why I've linked to several anti-corruption and transparency groups on the left hand side.

Lately, I was beginning to think that it was all futile. Few seem to care, the media only focuses on a few, and it just goes on and on. Any student of history knows that corruption has always been present. I recently read a book on Caesar, and the author related how Caesar made an early name for himself prosecuting corrupt Roman Senators, so government corruption is hardly new.

So I began to think, if government has never been honest, and has always been prone to corruption, then why do I expect it not to be? Why do I get upset when I read about it? How can we imagine what an honest government looks like, if we have never seen it?

I recently read C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity, and in the opening chapters, he explains that everyone has within them the idea of fair play and how we should behave, and these are obvious to everyone. All human societies have these basic ideas: that you should do what you promised, that you shouldn't take what is not yours, that you should tell the truth, that you shouldn't be selfish, and so on. And that even though we all know these innate rules, we break them all the time, while still expecting others to live up to these ideas.

Now Lewis went on to posit that these moral rules serve as evidence of God, but that is not the point I am trying to make. Rather it is this: this idea helped me to accept that although we may never have seen an honest society, and we may never be able to create one, it doesn't mean that it does not remain our goal. The same moral drive within us that insists on believing in honesty and fair play applies to insisting on honest government.

Of course, there is another reason to continue the interest in honest government, and it is a practical one. Corruption results in a misapplication of scarce public resources. What we should rationally be spending money on becomes distorted and influenced by graft or the self-interest of a politician. Opportunities are wasted, which have a human cost. As government becomes involved in more and more decisions, and regulates more of an expanding economy, more opportunities develop for corruption. This is one of the strongest practical arguments for limited government, if for no other reason that to reduce opportunities for corruption.

Or as author Michael F. Holt puts it in The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party:

[C]orruption was doubly insidious. It induced officeholders to place their self-interest ahead of the public good and thus reduced their effectiveness as guardians of the people's liberty. At the same time, corruption of private citizens eroded their vigilance and their concern for public life by creating an obsession with materialistic self-advancement. The result would be inevitable. Since neither the people nor their representatives placed a priority on the protection of public liberty and equality any longer, power would encroach on liberty. Tyranny would prevail...

The corruption that comes from a bloated regulatory state is not limited to the politicians themselves. As parts of society become more dependent on the state, republican virtues fade, replaced by self-interest alone. In this, corporate donor tax breaks and lobbyist-influenced insider contracts are the primary offenders. Evidence of this systemic corruption is the collapse of fiscal discipline, the inability of our government to live within its means, and to run enormous deficits despite record tax collections.

The eventual result: a corrupted society no longer capable of self-government. The Roman Republic will always be an example of this. As wealth poured in from conquest, Roman society became corrupted, lost the will to self-government, its politics becoming increasingly violent. Efforts by the Gracchi brothers to reform the system failed, as too much money was at stake for the elites to allow the people to hold power, and a republic that stood for hundreds of years, far longer that ours, failed.

One sign of the developing rot is the way political partisans will excuse the corruption of politicians they ideologically support. In this way, corruption becomes a political game, allowing corruption to not only continue, but to flourish.

One of the reasons I am interested in the Whig movement is the belief that increased political competition will help cure what is wrong. Of course, any Whig elected to any office in the future will be exposed to the same temptations as the politicians from the Democratic or the Republican Party. We Whigs cannot hope to elect better, incorruptible men and women to office. They will still be just men and women.

But there is one thing we Whigs can do differently, and we must resolve to do it before we get started. When one of our own succumbs to corruption, we must not excuse it. We must resolve now, at the beginning, to confront it head on. Even if the other political parties do not. Especially if they do not. It will be hard to do when the time comes, but self-government is not about ease. Dictatorship is easy. If we do not resolve to confront corruption, wherever we find it, then there is no point, and we will deserve the choices with which we are presented by the Democrats and the Republicans.


Anonymous said...

Brilliant post!

Liberator_Rev said...

I've been tracking Republican corruption for years, so that you and everyone else wouldn't have to, which is why I have become such an expert on that subject that when you Google "Republican corruption and immorality", my LiberalsLikeChrist.Org/gopcorruption.html is the top site listed.
I've challenged Republicans who claim that the Democrats are just as corrupt to produce a comparable catalogue of crooks, cheats and hypocrites, and they can't do it because the parties are not equally corrupt!