In Defense of Corruption*
One has to admire Murtha’s honesty. “If I’m corrupt, it’s because I take care of my district” might not represent the best of disinterested liberal governance, but it’s a refreshingly frank admission of his core political priorities. And whatever one thinks of Murtha’s methods, the sentiment behind them is certainly understandable. Murtha was elected to conduct the people’s business. In Western Pennsylvania, the people’s business is ensuring a modicum of stability in the midst of a disorienting economic transition. The impetus behind Murtha’s penchant for pork, at least, is actually quite noble.
So is Murtha wrong for shamelessly funneling government largess to his beleaguered district? Well, yes, I suppose he is. But for all his faults, Murtha is a creature of the system. He wants to help his district. In an earlier era, he may have been a particularly effective ward boss or a successful small town mayor. Now, however, congressional earmarks have replaced local patronage as the best way to keep his constituents fat and happy.
Had Murtha acquired a similar reputation for creative financial disbursement as town mayor or state representative, I doubt he’d be villified by anyone. Earmarks, special expenditures, patronage – these things grease the wheels of local democracy. Moreoever, their proximity to the people who originally supplied the funds and voted the relevant elected officials into office gives them a special kind of legitimacy that national earmarks sorely lack . At the state or regional level, the connection between government spending and citizen welfare isn’t tenuous. To those of us outside Western Pennsylvania, however, the supposed benefits of the John P. Murtha Technology Center are less apparent.
Too often, critics of earmarks obsess over the latest in asburd congressional spending without examining their larger context. Murtha’s prodigious earmarks are symptomatic of real social needs that deserve to be addressed by elected officials. That these officials are best-positioned to act effectively at the national level is an indictment of our top-heavy political infrastructure, not an indictment of public welfare spending per se.
*This headline brought to you by Slate Magazine.