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The Normalization of Corruption

Corruption Box (photo: watchsmart)

A decade ago the wise American public told us something important: they believe corruption is so endemic to our political system that unethical acts are no longer illegal. That’s the only way to interpret a 2001 ABC/Washington Post poll in which 68 percent thought political favors for contributors were unethical, but only 42 percent thought them illegal.

As long as our leaders talk of virtue and morality, their actual acts are shrugged off as sad by-products of humankind’s fall into sin. Of course, Shakespeare warned us about this tragic doublespeak than 400 years ago when, in The Merchant of Venice, he had Bassanio say:

In Law, what plea so tainted and corrupt
But, being season’d with a gracious voice,
Obscures the show of evil?

Or, if you prefer, we can go back 2,400 years, when Thucydides wrote:

Some legislators only wish to vengeance against a particular enemy. Others only look out for themselves. They devote very little time on the consideration of any public issue. They think that no harm will come from their neglect. They act as if it is always the business of somebody else to look after this or that. When this selfish notion is entertained by all, the commonwealth slowly begins to decay.

Corruption has been with us awhile, and we have survived. From time to time we have even flourished, and we will again. My hope is that by being honest about the illness, we might just cure it.

So, we should look hard at the legitimization and normalization of corruption.  We can follow political scientist Mark E. Warren and define corruption as the duplicitous exclusion of people from decisions that affect them. Democracy, if nothing else, is supposed to give people a say in decisions that affect them. The exclusion is duplicitous because while the elite are busy excluding everyone else, they hypocritically claim inclusiveness.

This broadened definition has an advantage over the more common (and still important) view – corruption is the abuse of office for private gain – because it lets us scrutinize the processes by which people come to hold their offices. For instance, when the voices of average Americans are drowned by unlimited corporate political contributions, average Americans are excluded. The process, the judiciary that legalized the process, and the candidates and their corporate benefactors who take advantage of the process – all are corrupt.

The normalization of corruption became easier once the “humans-in-essence-are-corrupt” meme had been sold. This profoundly mistaken view of humanity, which I wrote about two weeks ago, actually elevated corruption to something like a morality all its own.

It was John Maynard Keynes who reportedly said:

Capitalism is the theory that the worst people, acting from their worst motives, will somehow produce the most good.

This preposterous faith in unrestrained self-interest – and the normalization of corruption that is its brother – produces nothing but social, economic and environmental catastrophe. The evidence is all around us. Even the weather is testifying against the corrupt.

Tweedling around the edges of the problem accomplishes little. For instance, campaign finance reformers often believe that the mere reporting of campaign contributions – legalized bribes – will lead to cleaner elections. Sunshine laws are important, but when the public already believes the system is corrupt, all such reporting really does is confirm what we already know.

This is why I have long supported a move toward full, public finance of political campaigns at all levels of government. Such a change would have to be legislated by officials whose power depends upon the corrupt system, however. In effect, we’re asking them to turn themselves in and confess their crimes.

Hard as it would be to accomplish – it would amount to a new American revolution – the effort itself might help re-criminalize corruption with other reforms.

It’s hard to imagine today’s elected officials taking such a dramatic step. But it’s easy to imagine a public in a populist mood demanding that they do so.

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Glenn W. Smith

Glenn W. Smith