The Poisonous Persistence of Corruption

When a lust for power meets with abundant resources, corruption is almost inevitable. The US appears to have found a unique response: Thanks to Citizens United, many questionable practices have now come under the protection of the law.

Lamentably, politics has always had its seamy side. While politics can sometimes be the expression of our noblest sentiments, it can also be used to oppress and crush the human spirit. The persistence of corruption in governments is largely a function of the irresistible lure of power and resources meeting human nature. In the corporate world, corruption invariably involves money. In politics much more is involved. Yes, money can be a factor, but you are also dealing with power, domination, status, and ego. The most honorable among us enter politics to serve, but politics is also where, as Harold Lasswell reminds us, those who crave attention, control, and power are drawn. The world of politics is like a magnet to those suffering from inner conflict, insecurity, a need to seek fulfillment and compensation for perceived shortcomings. In short, damaged people are drawn to politics like flies to a rotting carcass. Thus, combating corruption is an especially vexing problem.

Most classical philosophers from Plato on believed that the way to prevent corruption in rulers was to teach them virtue. In the sixteenth century, Machiavelli scoffed at such foolishness and instead wrote about the realities of power and its pursuit. Machiavelli had a somewhat jaundiced view of human nature, seeing both the potential for evil as well as good in humans. He cautioned the would-be prince to be prepared to do “that which is not good” if it becomes necessary to gain and effectively use power. Lord Acton reminded us in the nineteenth century that “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

To overcome this, the American founders believed that only in separating power among the chief institutions of government could corruption be stemmed. Power would be dispersed and fragmented so that no one person or institution could monopolize and thereby be corrupted by absolute power. Yet, whatever the method tried, corruption has persisted. Political corruption persists because we are human and can sometimes be tempted. Oscar Wilde was on to something when he said, “I can resist everything but temptation.”

One way to prevent corruption is to decriminalize it. The United States cleverly does this in the area of campaign finance. US elections are “legally corrupt” in that the law allows wealthy donors to “lease” politicians by allowing virtually unregulated campaign contributions and spending (See: 2010 Supreme Court decision, Citizens United). Campaigns in the United States are grotesquely expensive (it is estimated that in the 2012 presidential election, all parties and interests will spend over three billion).

But despair not, as all is not lost. While there is no way of ridding the political world of corruption, several factors can diminish the volume and severity of corruption. The keys seem to be a) strict laws that are enforced and have high penalties; b) transparency; c) a culture that insists on and rewards honesty; d) independent courts and prosecutors; e) an independent free press; f) an active, informed and engaged citizenry; and g) institutional controls on power (such as a separation of powers).

Read more in this debate: Birger Priddat, Thomas Kliche.

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