Corruption and other dangers

Conservative partisans of democracy make it their special boast that they are alert to the dangers that power will corrupt anyone who wields it, and that power must therefore be divided, broadly shared, and accountable.  For the sake of argument, I will grant that democracy does a very good job of checking corruption.  I even think it’s possible that today’s democratic governments constitute the least corrupt ruling class in history.  I do find it odd, though, that democrats make such a big deal out of such a small problem.

Corruption is when a public official uses his office to pursue his own good rather than the public good:  taking bribes, embezzling public funds, having the police harass his private enemies, that sort of thing.  A free press and regular elections might help discourage that sort of thing.  The problem today, at least in the developed world, is not corruption.  The problem is purity.  Corruption is one of the things that make Leftist rule bearable.  If all the civil servants with an itch to save the world were to just take their salaries and do nothing, I would consider that public money well spent.  But these busybodies aren’t corrupt, and they can’t be bought off so easily.  They take their public moneys and use them to try to inflict social justice on the rest of us.  And so it is with our elected rulers too, who become more tolerable the more corrupt and hypocritical they become.  Unfortunately, they do have a strong accountability mechanism–the free press–that spurs them to be more pure, that is, more pitilessly fanatical.

The danger of corruption, as I have defined it, is much different from the danger of tyranny or hubris.  Robespierre was incorruptible, unfortunately.  Suppose we redefine “corruption” to take these other vices into account, so that we can say that a politician is “corrupted” by ideological recklessness or imprudence.  If we focus on these vices, though, it should be clear that it is not power that corrupts, but powerlessness that corrupts, and absolute powerlessness corrupts absolutely.  The ruling party is forced to confront practical realities, to distinguish between the ideal and the possible.  The party out of power tries to win favor with the multitude by ideological posturing, making demands of the state that are unattainable or counterproductive.  Then, after making their silly and pointless demands (“The ruling party should fix the economy, make sure all Americans have jobs, eliminate the national debt while increasing social spending and subjugating all our enemies worldwide”), the party out of power sits back and hopes bad things will happen to its country, so it can reap the benefits.  Throughout my adult life, this has been the pattern:  it’s always the party in power–whichever one it is–that acts the most responsibly.  Perhaps this is the advantage of different parties controlling different branches of government, not to keep any party from becoming absolutely powerful, but to prevent any party from becoming absolutely powerless and thus devoid of responsibility.

Is this an argument for democracy then, to give the people power so that they won’t be corrupted by powerlessness?  No, because the perverse incentives that make powerlessness so corrupting are created by elections and the press.  People certainly should be invested with responsibilities, since these are schools of the virtues, but this is not done through giving them power as a mass, but through our individualized responsibilities as parents, siblings, neighbors, and professionals.

3 Responses

  1. I am reminded of the recent article by Theodore Dalrymple: “Britain is a very corrupt country: much more corrupt than France” (Sept 9th, 2011)http://www.socialaffairsunit.org.uk/blog/archives/002075.php), which expresses a largely similar view.

  2. “People certainly should be invested with responsibilities, since these are schools of the virtues, but this is not done through giving them power as a mass, but through our individualized responsibilities as parents, siblings, neighbors, and professionals.”

    Importantly, and damningly, democracy (at least in its modern form, if not in principle) endeavors to destroy most individual responsibilities.

  3. “For the sake of argument, I will grant that democracy does a very good job of checking corruption. I even think it’s possible that today’s democratic governments constitute the least corrupt ruling class in history.”

    You have got to be kidding. The ruling class in Western countries is robbing us blind by the trillions, each breaking and bending every rule in oder to line his own pockets. Every day this criminal class becomes bolder and the laws enforced less.

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