In Defense of Corruption*



Will writes from Washington, D.C. (well, Arlington, Virginia). You can reach him at willblogcorrespondence at gmail dot com.

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14 Responses

  1. Avatar nporiger says:

    If our national legislature were a unicameral house offering equal representation to all states and composed of representatives paid by the states, and not from the bottomless federal purse, we'd perhaps not to worry about this, and Mr. Murtha could happily serve as an old-school ward boss or small-town mayor.

    *removes Anti-Federalist cap* Report

  2. "a unicameral house offering equal representation to all states"

    …or we'd have even worse abuses from those states with the smallest populations than we do now, because their few thousand citizens can easily outvote the millions of people who live in big cities. Subsidies are subsidies and bribes are bribes, regardless of source. Report

  3. Avatar nporiger says:

    I must respectfully demur, Joseph. I specifically said "equal representation to all states" for a reason: The Anti-Federalist vision was one in which the national government, in what little role it played, was for the States, and not for the people. The state governments existed for the people.

    Bribery, though certainly not wholly escapable, becomes a much smaller problem when the delegations in Washington vote on behalf of their states (That is, the State is the constituency, and not any one person or group of people, other than the State's population, indirectly, through the State government.) and are paid by the state governments, and thus can be removed thereby. Report

    • That's fine, I understood that. It's just that it seems to me that what would happen in that scenario, contra the Anti-Federalist vision, is just that organized lobbying, interest-group politics, vote-buying, and all forms of corruption etc. would simply be more intense at the state level, and just as bad, but with the added side effect that states would likely band together in blocs based around common industries and force through legislation that is only in the interest of one group of states – even moreso than is already the case. (I'm thinking in particular of agriculture, but certain types of manufacturing would apply as well.)

      I also disagree with the premise that there is some connection between a strong national government and particular kinds of corruption that would vanish if the states were stronger and the federal government weaker. Simply shifting the locus of power changes only which governments need to be bought more. Report

  4. "Had Murtha acquired a similar reputation for creative financial disbursement as town mayor or state representative, I doubt he’d be villified by anyone."

    Uh, as a longtime resident of Palm Beach County, I beg to differ. Report

  5. At the state or regional level, the connection between government spending and citizen welfare isn’t tenuous, except when it is, which is often. Report

  6. Avatar Will says:

    Corruption is a fact of life, and I'm not sure you can ever get rid of it entirely. That said, I think dealing with parochial welfare questions at the state and local level is both more democratically accountable and less prone to egregious political pandering. Report

  7. Avatar Freddie says:

    Very well said. What is too often left out of the discussion of earmarks is that for an awful lot of people, earmarks are the only way the see their democracy working for them or getting value back for the taxes they pay. I don't like a lot of this spending either, but there is a simple Darwinian logic to asking your representatives to bring home a big slice of the pie. Report

  8. Well sure, but the way to do that is to actually be involved at the local level. No massive systemic restructuring is needed, just pay more attention and fergodsakes vote in municipal, county, and state elections.

    But since people generally DON'T do any of that, it's not much more democratically accountable (though I agree that it would be if more people did). As for "egregious political pandering"…I don't see that going away no matter what. I mean, have you ever been to a city council meeting? Report

  9. Avatar bcg says:

    "So is Murtha wrong for shamelessly funneling government largess to his beleaguered district? Well, yes, I suppose he is."

    This post should have either a) ended there or b) grown some balls. It should also have noted that these earmarks help the district indirectly, through campaign donors, or family members. Report

  10. Avatar CJW says:

    I think there are a couple other issues confronting earmark opponents:

    1. Murtha (as well as Ron Paul-… ) also strongly make the argument that the alternative is likely to be spending that same money by faceless executive branch bureaucrats (overseen by political appointees). Perhaps more effective, but probably less democratic. In most cases, this money would not be excluded from being spent, earmarked or not.

    2. The wrong interpretation of earmarks. Steering money to your constituents is not problematic or preventable. However, the appropriating of non-authorized monies, particularly combined with the mega-omnibus-bills-with-2-hour-to-read-it style that accompanies it, represents new and troublesome non-programmatic funds.


  11. Avatar CJW says:

    One other thing- Murtha is probably not the perfect context to evaluate earmarks as corruption. The connections between PMA, Murtha, and Visclosky go far beyond the ordinary level of the "pay to play" campaign contributions for targetted earmarks practices of most members. The unique context of appropriations committee power, combined with the "unique" process of deciding defense contracting (as well as off-budget supplemental defense spending) doesn't really provide universal lessons. Report

  12. Avatar nporiger says:

    I'll grant, borderline quasi-anarcho-localist that I am, I may buy a little too naïvely into the A-Fs; however, I'm not sure that you're not too pessimistic.

    1. I'll concede, at least ninety percent, the first point. However, had bicameralism been established at the state level, with a more aristocratic upper house, it's possible, though, I grant, by no means necessary, that some of these effects may have been mitigated.

    2. I'm not so sure at all that, at least in the early days of the confederation, the banding together of states to force legislation through would have been too problematic, simply because the national government would have had far fewer legislative powers under the A-F's vision than we're accustomed to its having. Moreover, under their vision, any state no longer satisfied with the course followed by the confederation certainly would have retained the right to secede and to try its luck on its own or aligned in some way with another nation (Vermont + Quebec = New France?)

    3. I never meant to suggest that particular kinds of corruption would vanish, although, certainly, some way. That the state governments, instead, would be those in need of being bought is, doubtless, true. However, at least at the time, with smaller populations, state governments could have been held much more accountable than the far-off national apparatus. Also, the vision of the A-F's was not merely state-oriented (I don't mean to suggest that this is your claim; I'm merely elaborating and expanding), but localist in nature. That, within their states — at least those with stronger A-F decentralist/localist proclivities —they could further have limited government through subsidiarity, so that direct local democracy, based on something akin to Jefferson's ward republics, were the most active source of everyday governance, is certainly plausible Report