Money, Wealth, and the Corruption of Government

by | Feb 11, 2003 | POLITICS

It was hardly the end of an era, but the opening of the 108th Congress on January 07, 2003, brought the curtain down on the short tenure of Minnesota Senator Dean Barkley, a longtime ally of now-former Governor Jesse Ventura who obtained his Senate post two months ago upon the death of Paul Wellstone. Barkley’s […]

It was hardly the end of an era, but the opening of the 108th Congress on January 07, 2003, brought the curtain down on the short tenure of Minnesota Senator Dean Barkley, a longtime ally of now-former Governor Jesse Ventura who obtained his Senate post two months ago upon the death of Paul Wellstone. Barkley’s service was brief and undistinguished, yet that did not prevent him from offering some valedictory remarks on what he considered the root of evil in Washington–money.

In an exit interview with the Associated Press, Barkley took some parting shots at his Senate colleagues:

“I highly doubt I’ll ever get back to this position the old-fashioned way,” said Barkley, who came in third in his 1994 and 1996 Senate campaigns which were won by Republican Rod Grams and Wellstone, respectively. “The trend in this town is all about money. Over half of the new members are millionaires.”

“This is the only place in America where bribery is legal and sanctified, because it’s political,” he added, referring to campaign contributions. His solution is the same as Wellstone’s: publicly financed elections.

Barkley is not the first to complain about the presence of multiple millionaires among the new (and current) senators. A number of leftist “public interest” groups complain that there are too many wealthy senators who don’t understand the needs of “average” people. It’s a criticism that predates the republic itself–the rich dominate governance to the detriment of the commoners.

But wealth is not the cause of corruption in government. If anything, it’s a symptom. Campaign contributions are not just about obtaining favors; for many businessmen, they’re a means of self-defense against populists who seek to destroy private property rights. Consider the pharmaceutical company that donates to a Senate candidate in the hopes that the next Congress won’t further erode valid patent protections for new drugs. Some folks–such as Democrats–look at this and cry “bribery”; but to a rational man, this is an ethically justified action. It is the populists who seek to abolish patent protections who are in the wrong, not the pharmaceutical company. This same example can be applied to literally hundreds of industries that are under daily assault from Capitol Hill.

Corruption arises when a government exceeds its constitutional and moral boundaries. The advent of special-interest dominance in Washington has to do with the expansion of government, not the presence of millionaires in the Senate. A man’s personal wealth does not always reveal his true character. Senator Jon Corzine, New Jersey Democrat, is one of the wealthiest senators, yet he proudly opposes individual rights and capitalism as adamantly as any Communist. Wealth clearly doesn’t interfere with his concept of the “public interest.”

For his part, Barkley’s support for publicly financed elections comes from his experience running Jesse Ventura’s campaign in Minnesota, where the candidate relied largely on state matching funds. But Ventura didn’t win the election because of public money. If public financing equaled popularity, then PBS would win the Nielsen ratings every week. He won because the voters of Minnesota–or at least a third of them–saw through the total ethical vacuum of the two major-party candidates. While Ventura is hardly a great thinker, he did present a vision for government that easily outclassed the two-party emphasis on anti-ideological consensus.

It is this opposition to ideology that fuels corruption. Neither major party presents ideological arguments on a consistent basis. Indeed, both parties work to eliminate ideology from public debate, as they resort to distortions and negative advertising the moment somebody works up the nerve to present an original thought. Both parties cater to interest groups that reject ideology in favor of special privileges for well-connected interest groups. Neither has an interest in genuine debate.

The answer to this problem is not more “democracy.” Indeed, it was the expansion of democracy that contributed to the present situation. Direct election of senators, which came in the 1920s, was hailed as a great achievement over the previous system of election by state legislatures. In fact, it was the abolition of this check on federal power that contributed to the rise in interest-group control of the Senate. After all, it was nearly impossible for interest groups to dominate dozens of state legislatures simultaneously; it proved far easier to manipulate direct popular elections.

Under the old system, there were no campaign finance problems, because Senate candidates did not have to campaign directly. They were statesmen and legislators, not professional fundraisers. As democracy took hold, money became indispensable to winning election. Candidates promised more special favors to interest groups for short-term support, and individual rights suffered the consequences. Public campaign financing would only be another step in this devolution. It would remove ideological control of the debate from individuals and hand it to the state, which in turn would squelch what true debate remains in favor of payouts to favored candidates and parties.

If there’s any interim solution to the corruption of political debate, it would be to remove the artificial levers used to maintain the two-party duopoly. Repealing restrictive ballot access laws, for example, would permit more parties and candidates to appear on the ballot without resorting to the extreme step of state financing. Eliminating state-run party primary elections would also help, since it would allow parties to nominate candidates that stand for something, rather than reward candidates who most effectively pander to the lowest common denominator. America’s great presidents–Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln–never spent their winters campaigning in Iowa or New Hampshire. They were nominated by party leaders committed to ideas, and America reaped the benefits.

Democracy for democracy’s sake is not a virtue when it means repealing individual rights in favor of rule-by-special-interest mobs. Few veteran politicians ever learn that lesson. Even Dean Barkley, who was only in town a couple of months, failed to understand the problem. Perhaps some of his millionaire successors can figure it out.

S. M. Oliva is president of Citizens for Voluntary Trade and a senior fellow at the Center for the Advancement of Capitalism.

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