Money Does Not Corrupt Politics, State Power Corrupts Politics

Kevin Drum asks whether money corrupts politics, and comes to the conclusion that it does.  I disagree.

Money does not corrupt politics, the expansion of state power corrupts politics.  Every time the state gains a new power to take money from person A and give it to person B, or to throttle company A's business in favor of company B, private individuals start to scheme how they might access that power to their own benefit.

Think back to the much smaller US government of the 19th century.  Don't you long for the day when political corruption mainly meant packing the Post Office with one's kin?  It is absolutely no coincidence that the largest political scandal of that century (the Crédit Mobilier) accompanied the largest expansion of Federal power in that century (the Federally-funded construction of the Transcontinental Railroad).

Political corruption follows the power.  Sure, this power is often bought in dollars, but if we were to entirely ban money from the political process, the corruptions would remain.  And it would shift payment from money to other goods, like quid pro quo's, barter, and access to grass roots labor supplies.  Anyone remember machine politics?

Here is an example from an Administration schooled from an early age in Chicago machine politics

The Heritage Foundation has issued a new report that charges the Obama administration sent presidential earmarks, taxpayer dollars, to Democratic lawmakers to help convince them to vote for controversial proposals such as cap and trade and the health care bill.

“When you examine the recipients of those grants, there were at least 32 vulnerable house Democrats who received significant federal grant money during the run-up or directly after the votes on those pieces of legislation,” says Lachlan Markay, one of the authors of the report.

The amount of earmarks spiked around the time of difficult votes such as cap and trade, then dropped, only to spike again around controversial financial regulations known as Dodd/Frank, and spiked the most just before the vote on the health care bill....

On their websites, lawmakers didn’t advertise their votes, but did tout at length the money they’d gotten for various local projects.

“As a way to counteract the negative voter sentiment that would come from voting for unpopular legislation,” says Markay. “These were attempts to make sure that constituents knew they were bringing money home to their district.”...

Numbers from the non-partisan Congressional Research Service show that the value of administration earmarks under President Obama increased by a 126 percent in his first two years in office and the actual number of administrative earmarks increased by 54 percent.

Those are dramatic increases that are 11 times more than Congress itself increased earmarks, which the White House did not explain today.

By the way, of all the ways that access to political power can be bought, political spending under our current rules is by far the most transparent.   Just as in narcotics or prostitution, a ban wouldn't eliminate it, it would simply drive it further underground and into other forms of currency.


  1. Slocum:

    Absolutely! That might be the single biggest blind-spot in the progressive world view -- being unable (or unwilling) to see that the increased size and power of the government creates not only expanded opportunities for corruption but almost the *necessity* of more corruption. If you are a large business in a regulated industry, you damn well better start buying influence in Washington out of self-preservation (because if you don't, your competitors will, and the contracts & regulations will be written to help their businesses and harm yours).

    What's worse, this dynamic leads to increases in regulatory power being used by politicians to bring in new sources of 'revenue'. A lightly regulated industry has little need to buy influence, so the companies in it may generally ignore Washington and focus solely on competition and innovation. But this is a BAD thing from the point of view of politicians. They're leaving a lot of money on the table. But as soon as they start regulating the industry, well then the companies are forced to turn time, attention, and money toward influencing those regulations, and the money and other goodies for the influential legislators start pouring in. It's hard to imagine now, but twenty years ago, when the PC industry was new, those companies largely ignored Washington as irrelevant and spent very little money trying to influence it. Congress obviously couldn't let that state of affairs go on.

  2. steve:

    It would probably be a hard argument to get across to someone who isn't already of a strong libertarian bent but I would take your statement one step farther. Not state power corrupts. But, state power is corruption. It is corruption incarnate and can not be yielded in an incorrupt fashion.

  3. jj:

    Put another way -- Money doesn't corrupt politics, politics corrupts money.

    It'll never catch on... in reality the corruption feeds both ways, but I really do think politics is the worse end of it!

  4. Matt:

    "Money corrupts politics" is exactly backward. Politics is intrinsically corrupt, while money is at worst morally neutral.

  5. me:

    I do have some trouble with the argument - in essence, the last 8 years demonstrate pretty clearly that the government has very strong incentive in satisfying their interest groups desire for more money to expand government power and utilize the existing powers to the max. The chicken and egg problem. Personally, I have trouble believing that politicians come up with proposals to expand powers out of the goodness of their own pure hearts and then are extremely surprised that those expansions allow their friends, lobbyists and sponsors to reap shockingly large amounts of money.

  6. eddie:

    I'm all in favor of getting money out of politics. After all - the root of the problem is that politicians can take so much of my money.

  7. EscapedWestOfTheBigMuddy:

    The self-described progressives with whom I've most recently had this talk seem to genuinely believe that people go into politics with good intentions and that those are enough to prevent them doing anything bad unless and until someone comes to them with money.

    My boggler was broken for weeks and I had to get some intensive therapy for it.

  8. IGotBupkis, Three Time Winner of the Silver Sow Award:

    >>> “As a way to counteract the negative voter sentiment that would come from voting for unpopular legislation,” says Markay. “These were attempts to make sure that constituents knew they were bringing money home to their district.”…

    What, have we forgotten the term for this? It's called "PORK".

  9. IGotBupkis, Three Time Winner of the Silver Sow Award:

    >>> I’m all in favor of getting money out of politics. After all – the root of the problem is that politicians can take so much of my money.

    I'm all in favor of getting all the current politicians out of politics. You don't HAVE to use high-velocity lead or a noose, but there is a great deal of satisfaction in that, and it does zero out the chances for recidivism in the former politicians, which is always a major problem.

  10. Sam L.:

    Have you watched AMC's "Hell On Wheels" (now in hiatus)? Credit Mobilier and heavy-duty chicanery are plot elements.

  11. 'TwasEverThus:

    *eddie: I have taken what you have written and will use it as a Facebook quote/signature for forums.
    *Sam L.: I wish "Hell on Wheels" was a better show than it is.

    I wonder if legalizing vote buying would be a better system. At least then, everyone would be honest about what they're trying to do.