Corruption [Part II]

At one point, I wondered why the United States has less overt “corruption” and bribery than most other nations, but that was before I analyzed what corruption is and the different forms that it takes.  Although recent usage of the verb “to corrupt” tends to emphasize terms like “to pervert” or “to destroy morality” or “to debase or ruin,” the original meaning of the Latin roots means “to break thoroughly or completely.”

Governments are the institutional means by which societies accomplish common social goals and keep the peace.  In the original sense of the word, a government that cannot do either or both is thoroughly broken, i.e., corrupt.  What lies behind a society’s ability to function, as well as a government’s effectiveness, is the simple matter of trust.  If a government official cannot be trusted to do his or her job without a bribe, or in the worst cases, even after a bribe is paid, then that official is corrupt.  There’s an old definition about an “honest politician” – he’s the one who stays bribed, and there’s an element of truth to that, because that sort of “honest politician” can be trusted to carry out whatever the bribe was for.

In the United States, in this context, how much is “broken” by corruption and in what fashion is it broken?  Commentators, particularly on the left, claim that the political system has been “corrupted” by the power of special and moneyed interests, and that the recent Supreme Court decision affirming the right of corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money in “public interest” campaign spending symbolizes that corruption.  Yet… is that corruption, when it is accomplished through the workings of the system society has set up?  It may not be “good,” according to those who oppose the unchecked power of money, but is it corrupt?  On the other hand, by any definition, politicians who take cash, either under or over the table, are corrupt… but what about those whose votes are determined by whose legal campaign contributions are the largest and most faithful?  Yet, compared to most countries, the U.S. has a comparatively low percentage of politicians who take bribes or illegal cash.  Does the “legal” granting of favors amount to corruption?

I’d have to say it does not, because, under the terms of that argument, answering to voters becomes a form of corruption, since the politician is taking the favor of votes in return for providing various goods to his constituents.  In essence, any legal trade-off could be called corruption.  In fact, the system works.  We may not like the results, but we have the right, and the power, to change it. In a truly corrupt nation or municipality, the people, by majority vote or act, do not have such a choice.

Why has it worked out this way in the USA? I wouldn’t claim to have all the answers to this, but I suspect it’s because our terribly convoluted and complex system offers many avenues for people to influence the outcomes of governmental decisions and because the government has historically been generally trustworthy. I would note that “trustworthy” does not necessarily mean “excellent”; it means that the government and its officials keep their word and carry out policies and rules generally as they’re laid out.  You and I may not like those laws and policies, but they carry them out.

That issue, in another sense, is what lies behind the Arizona immigration law and furor.  The people of Arizona don’t believe that the U.S. federal government can be trusted to carry out what they believe are federal responsibilities.  The problem there is that the government believes it is carrying out its responsibilities under the law. Technically, I doubt there’s much question about that, but there is an implied contract involved, which, although unwritten in more than general terms of “enemies foreign and domestic,” implies that government needs to protect people against “invasion” and loss, and the people of Arizona believe that contract is being broken.

But… is it?  And if it is, who is breaking that contract?  The government… or all those who hire illegal aliens and all those who buy the illegal drugs of the illegals’s gangs?  Is it the government that is broken. i.e., corrupt?  Or is the government taking the brunt of the blame for not addressing the “corruption” of others in the way that large segments of the population would like?

3 thoughts on “Corruption [Part II]”

  1. j says:

    Thanks for this fascinating and insightful series of blog entries. I’m looking forward to your forthcoming writing, both here and in your novels.



  2. Zelazny says:

    I’ll stake out my position right from the start. The political party I most empathise with is the libertarians (although I’ve heard odd stories about the ones you have over there – I’m in the UK, and referreding to LPUK).

    Regarding the Arizona immigration, I think a key question to ask is why? Why are people coming in and taking jobs/supplying illegal drugs?

    Generally speaking, people coming in and working is a good thing. They’ll do the work for less, which frees up the people who would have been doing the work to do more productive things with their time. The workers should be paying taxes, and thus contributing to society, and they’ll be paying rent, buying food and clothes, etc and thus contributing to the local economy. People who want to come in and work are (in my opinion) a goodness, and not something to be complained about (as long as they are paying taxes, etc – and the responsibility for that lies with their employer).

    People that come in to supply illegal drugs is a more tricky one. As a near-Libertarian, I think we’d be better off if we legalised drugs, imposed restrictions on quality and taxed the externalities associated with them – society would be much better off, and the general effect in places that have done similar things is that usage goes down after legalisation, rather than up as most on the left fear (see for example,8599,1893946,00.html ).

    That said, they’d not come in if there wasn’t demand (which could be considered another reason to legalise). If the people want the drug dealers to stop coming in, then they need to decrease the local demand for drugs. I’m really not sure how this can be considered the government’s responsibility (but then, I don’t think there’s a lot that the government should do for us that we can’t do for ourselves).

    In the UK at the moment we have a fairly vocal anti-immigration crowd. Papers like the daily mail really don’t help matters, with stories of immigrant families coming in and getting 7 bedroom mansions provided to house their ever growing families, all paid for by the taxpayer. My opinion is simple – if someone wants to come here and work (and thus contribute to the economy), that’s fine. If they want to come here and live off benefits, then I’d oppose their entry.

    We have had one related knock-on effect. With the EU free movement laws, we can’t cap or oppose the moving here of people from elsewhere in the EU. This has led to a large number of people coming in from places like Poland and working hard to earn a living and send money back home. All good, but it has led to more and more British folks sitting on their backsides unable or unwilling to go and get a job. The benefits system provides enough to live on, and they’re comfy not working, so why should they? This needs to change, in my opinion. Welfare should be a safety net, not a comfy hammock.

    p.s. I very much enjoy your books. I’m a few behind at the moment, the last I read was Imager 2, but they’re not all that easy to get over here. I’ll be ordering more soon 🙂

  3. Speaker says:

    I have always been skeptical of utopian philosophies such as Objectivism and its twice-removed offspring Libertarianism, or Authoritarianism, or Communism because they depend on people to all act in predictable ways and to all have the same degree of ego-centrism. The societal circumstances described in the Imager’s Intrigue illustrate what happens when philosophies clash and point out that life is change (dead systems are the only ones that don’t change). This is one reason that I read works like the Imager’s Portfolio series: to ponder the thought experiment put forth in the stories.

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