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December 15, 2008

Less Government, Less Corruption


By now just about every American knows that Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich has been arrested for trying to sell Barack Obama’s Senate seat, for taking a children’s hospital hostage pending the receipt of political contributions and for threatening obstacles for the Tribune Company if it retains Chicago Tribune editorial members who are critical of him.


What too many Americans don’t know, however, is that similar behavior happens every day in American politics, and it happens everywhere.


The U.S. Department of Justice reports that over 1,000 persons every year face public corruption charges. These numbers include everyone from federal officials to state officials and all the way down to local officials. But unfortunately, these numbers still fail to give us an accurate picture of today’s corruption in politics.


From the crook’s perspective, Blagojevich was foolish enough to be incredibly blatant about his activities. And the same goes for many others who get caught. This means that the crooks who avoid getting caught are, indeed, the best crooks out there – and they are the ones who continue to operate today.


Learning that a Senate seat was being sold was offensive and shocking to many Americans. But what they tend to forget is that Senate seats and other political appointments are not the only things that could be, and are being, sold by politicians all the time.


Taxpayer funding for special pet projects is continuously sold by most members of the U.S. Congress to those who play the game through political contributions and private treats. These earmarks are the most obvious and continuous form of kickbacks we see in politics today. Disturbing questions can indeed be raised about most earmarks. Barack Obama, for example, requested a $1 million earmark for a Chicago hospital a year after it raised his wife’s salary by $200,000. Sounds like a good investment for the hospital.


Indeed, politicians have made it very profitable for special interests to contribute, entertain and lobby for money. The auto industry and its affiliates, for example, have spent $65 million in the first nine months of this year on political contributions and lobbying, and the unions have invested substantial amounts as well. One would think that a struggling industry and unions would use such large sums of money on directly saving their companies and jobs. But in return for throwing it at politicians, they will probably receive a multi-billion dollar bailout in the coming months. Recipients of corporate welfare, such as agricultural subsidies, enjoy similarly excellent deals with politicians. The same goes for government contractors and beneficiaries of selective regulation.


How are any of these illustrations any less shocking and deplorable than what Blagojevich did? There are some clear answers to this question. The offenders are a lot more careful and a lot less manifest about their actions than Blagojevich was. And they take the same actions en masse, agreeing to scratch each other’s backs and to protect each other from criticism and investigation.


The silver lining of the Blagojevich scandal is that it helps to dent popular over-confidence in government, and makes people considerably more suspicious of their officials. And this is exactly what America needs. When people stop putting their complete faith in government, they will realize that they can only trust it with fewer and fewer responsibilities. They will stop wanting the government to “do something” about perceived problems just for the sake of “doing something,” an unfortunate tendency witnessed in today’s democracies.


Can such corrupt behavior in government ever be fully eliminated? Probably not. It is a cost democracies have to accept. But the cost can very much be minimized by making government as small as possible and by giving politicians and bureaucrats as little power as possible. This would leave them with little room and little incentive to betray their constituents, and would give Americans and law enforcement fewer political areas to patrol.


Some have suggested a significant salary increase for public officials as a remedy for corruption problems. Although Americans’ inclination is to associate such a move with more corruption, giving politicians and bureaucrats a raise could actually have very beneficial effects. It could reduce the incentive for corruption, curtail the influence of special-interest money and attract much more qualified candidates – the type that run our best businesses and universities. If a $1 million salary sharply reduces the role of money and corruption among members of Congress, thereby bringing down the costs of earmarks, subsidies and bailouts, then the raise would prove to be an excellent investment for taxpayers.


Corruption has played a role in politics since the beginnings of civilization, and will likely never be completely eliminated. But it is a fact that a smaller government would bring with it a significant reduction in corruption. Government power and corruption muscle are directly related, and unfortunately, we currently have too much of both.

© 2008 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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