The Gratification Business

People who value money are unlikely to become politicians. But corruption remains endemic. Here are five reasons why.

Most politicians are honest. The greedy tend to be drawn to the financial sector or arms dealerships rather than public service. But politicians still struggle to curb corruption – and their mixed motives don’t help. For twenty years, they have bought into the idea that deregulation will be the tide that lifts all boats. But while executive pay has increased significantly, politicians haven’t seen large increases in their own earnings. Many aspire to belong to the elite circles of the rich – an aspiration that they cannot openly acknowledge, lest it lead to rumors of greediness and cold-heartedness.

For many politicians, the gratifications of their work are severely delayed. They travel, family relationships and friendships suffer, they are expected to smile, represent, persuade, greet strangers with affection and display humble decency on a daily basis. And when their official duties end, many are expected to work through correspondence, or socialize with their constituents and fellow party members. The contradictions in this laundry list of character traits are all too obvious. And the financial rewards are not sufficient to compensate for the burden of the politician’s lifestyle. Many are putting their faith into future prosperity, and try to secure lucrative consulting jobs on the side. In their mind, it’s a legitimate way to monetize their experience and networks.

Media discussions of corruption don’t help, either. Their moralizing tone prevents a neutral discussion. Many of us are justifying our own nagging and bourgeois apathy by pointing the finger at the juicy stories of corruption in the daily tabloids. It is not surprising that many politicians now expect their profession to be branded as a “dirty business,” and accept that they’ll be marked for life.

The forth factor is the slow transition from post-democracy to consumer democracy. The hedonistic bourgeois voter joins the discussion only when the threshold is low, when controversy is absent, when he doesn’t have to contribute much to be heard, and when he can quickly vanish into the background again. We regard the world as something that can be changed through fun, low-energy engagement. It is not surprising that new political parties tailor their agenda accordingly.

Add to that our complicated relationship with individual success, and you’ve got five factors that contribute to corruption. On the one hand, we expect our leaders to live as role models with respect for our norms and values. On the other hand, we like to see winners and domination. “Success at any cost” hasn’t quite lost its covert appeal. This also explains why many of us have an ambivalent relationship to the rule of law. Many crimes – tax evasion, insurance fraud, and so on – are regarded almost as gentlemanly transgressions. Corrupt politicians are probably only mirroring the tendencies for corruption within each of us. Yet we also struggle to admit our own wrongdoings – and react by raising the bar for our public officials even higher, and by projecting our own aspirations onto them. “They are our leaders,” we like to say, “they must act morally.” And when politicians fail to meet those standards, we relish the fact that our pessimistic world view has been confirmed, and that we need not worry about committing a bit of fraud ourselves.

It is thus misguided to demand that higher pay would solve the problem of political corruption. Introducing more money into the game would only intensify the competition for jobs, and it would not make us more interested in political participation.

We ought to strive for leadership positions because taking responsibility – before God, and for our children – is still the highest honor we can aspire to. Unfortunately, consumer democracy is leading us into the opposite direction: Towards a political elite that is intent on silencing the opportunistic and passive majority.

Read more in this debate: Birger Priddat, Michael Genovese.

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