An Age of Prohibition

The fight for money and influence has turned politics into a fertile ground for corruption – in every country. The only effective response is strict prohibition: Politicians must not be allowed to overstep the line between public service and private careerism.

While direct corruption is rare, indirect corruption is often the rule. Higher pay for politicians cannot solve this problem – which is why we need to improve old age provisions and strictly ban them from certain jobs.

Many of the things that stricter rules could classify as corruption would markedly disrupt the relations politicians have become accustomed to; a fact most recently visible during the controversy surrounding Germany’s former President Wulff. Politicians are frequently invited to events, and it is this “event business” which brightens their lives. None of them regularly wants to ponder whether all that is offered in the process might exceed the boundaries of what is legal or appropriate. They would feel left out – not least because the lifestyle has become all too common. When conversations take place, however, they are often initiated by lobbyists, who are keen to be the only ones receiving attention.

It is therefore only logical that politicians are influenced by others. Attention and respect are a scarce resource in politics, which is why they gladly and frequently accept it. Meetings, dinners at “after work parties” all help them create networks that are both political and private in nature. Politicians excelling at this have better chances of making it in politics: Being a good networker can open doors for others while gaining access in return (“gatekeeping”).

The transition to corruption is frequently indiscernible: Most in danger are politicians with memberships in committees, since this is where the influence of lobbyists is turned into laws and propositions. Nevertheless, corruption rarely takes the form of payment (i.e. direct corruption) but manifests itself in promises of receiving certain jobs (board memberships, consultancy jobs, or other posts) once useful contributions have been made in the committees. This is what we call indirect corruption.

Such a method has the added benefit that it can never officially be discovered as “corruption.” Its logic is based on politicians’ worry that they will no longer be useful once their political career has ended. In order to make it on the free market, they desire a kind of insurance – such as the old boys network within the party, or something entirely outside of that realm. Supporting corporations or other organizations, such as associations or labor unions, can later be rewarded with a job.

Direct corruption is much more likely to take place on levels, where “losers” reside – those people without the prospect of a lucrative career in politics or administration. Corruption then becomes their “second career,” often solely for the purpose of taking revenge or bolstering their self-esteem. With a career destined to fail, it is one last chance to show what they were actually capable of.

Could all this be fixed by drastically improving politicians’ pay? I am afraid that it would constitute an empty incentive, aside from being politically risky, since it might reverberate badly with voters. Sure, politicians would accept the extra money, but it simply does not address the root of the problem, namely the common worry about their future after politics. In contrast, ministers and state secretaries already receive a part of their former salary once their job has ended – a measure that should apply for members of parliament as well.

Such a transitionary pay could last for 18 months to ease the reintegration into a job. That is, of course, precisely the risk politicians take – to no longer be employable due to their age or skill set. Therefore, we must raise old age provisions and make sure they go into effect by the time a politician’s career ends. Meanwhile, they should be banned from working in areas, the legal environment of which they could previously define through their membership in committees. It would be sensible to require such a ban for five years at least.

Read more in this debate: Thomas Kliche, Michael Genovese.

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