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Corruption, Partisanship and the Wealth of Nations
September 24, 2004

Any student of history is familiar with the vital role of reform movements in the development of nations and empires. No matter how auspicious and well-intentioned the beginning of a political movement, country, empire or other entity may be, it seems that left to its own devices for long enough, that entity will inevitably drift into corruption and decay. History is replete with examples of this phenomenon. While the drift into decay and collapse is seemingly a foregone conclusion (nothing lasts forever), we can all think of empires which have resisted this drift to remain intact for generations and profoundly affect the destiny of both their contemporaries as well as future nations long after the old empire has crumbled to dust. However, there are also numerous examples of promising nations whose star burned a bright path across the sky and was then snuffed out within a generation or two. What is it which determines whether an empire will last a millennium or be only a memory within a decade? Clearly there are a host of factors which contribute to the success or failure of nations, but once a successful nation is born one factor which perhaps more than any other determines the long term viability of that nation is the ability to correct its course once it begins to go astray.

With the smug sense of cultural superiority common to humans in any age, we may look back over the follies of the ages and proclaim that our very own brand of government- the representative republic- is the pinnacle of human achievement in the political arena. Indeed, our system of government has much to recommend it. We have the excellent system of governmental checks and balances between the three branches, we have a free press to act as a watchdog in ensuring that government excesses do not go unknown, and in theory, the ultimate power of government rests in the hands of the people and may be wrested away at any time from government officials who abuse that power. With all of these things in place, why is it that so many of us feel that things have gotten off track, that neither our government nor the current course of our society are leading toward greater peace and prosperity for those who are affected by them?

I doubt if anyone would dispute the fact that there are many problems both dire and acute facing our country and the world today. There are many different sources for these difficulties, and in many cases we are facing these problems for the first time so that history provides no recourse in learning how we may deal with the problems we have created. History may, however, provide us with the knowledge of what is required to enable us to find the answer on our own. Throughout the course of time there have been many people who have perceived the downward slide of their nation and have worked to renew the institutions which allowed them to competently deal with the problem. In many cases where the people had little say in their own governance it was merely a race between the inevitable decay and blind luck- would someone be born with enough power as well as wisdom and foresight to save their nation, or would the incompetence of the hereditary rulers treading the downward spiral write finis to their nation's chapter in history? The nations which endured the test of time were either those who were fortunate enough to "hit the jackpot" with their rulers or else those whose structure provided for social mobility such that leaders gifted with the ability to save their country were given a path to power to enable them to do so. Of the first type there is perhaps no better example that the Byzantine Empire. An empire whose birth occurred way back in Roman times and which continued until it finally tottered to its grave at the time of the European renaissance, Byzantium was nearly laid to rest in its grave in the eighth century when Arabs from the quickly growing Muslim empire wrested more than half the empire away from the Byzantine kings and laid siege to the capital city. Through a combination of luck and able administration, Leo III, the king of this tottering empire drove his enemies from the gates, recaptured lost territories and enacted sweeping reforms which put the empire onto much firmer ground, including acts which established landed peasants as the backbone of the empire so that greater freedom and even social mobility were available than had previously been the case.

In our own time it seems apparent that our government has lost much of its potency in dealing with crises. Part of this lack is due to the lack of consensus on how to solve problems, which is to be expected in any governmental system in which the people are given a voice. However, further lack is also seen in the apparent failure of the measures our forefathers put into place to guard our government against the slide into decay. The failure of one of these protective measures- a free press- is easy to see. One has only to participate in any discussion group composed of both conservatives and liberals to see how cynical of accuracy and motive Americans have become in regards to the press. Almost any political item is dismissed out of hand by a conservative if the source for the information is, for example, the New York Times. The same may be said of liberals if a newsworthy item appears on Fox news. By becoming unashamedly partisan the news outlets have destroyed their own value as protectors of the public good. By taking political sides and actively working against one political party or the other, the news services have, in far too many cases, converted themselves into the machinery of their chosen party's propaganda and have thus ensured their own redundancy.

A similar effect may be seen to occur among the various branches of federal government. For example, by transforming themselves into a tool for the propagation and implementation of sweeping social change, the justices of the Supreme Court have made the citizenry extremely suspicious of them. It can easily be argued that the political activism of judges can be a necessary evil, as in the case of forcing through the issue of black civil rights in the south in the 60's. However, whether one believes that the current judicial activism is a good thing or a bad thing, it is obvious that the court's effect on social issues is sweeping and that it is now seen as yet another arena of partisan wrangling whose decisions are determined more by the stance of political parties than by any interest in objectively interpreting the constitution.

Fortunately our political process allows for a reform- minded individual from among the ranks of the people to rise up and change those problems which most afflict our government. However, it is also true that there are many obstacles to such a person gaining power. Due to the nature of our government there is a built-in tendency to concentrate on short-term problems and allow long-term problems to fester until a crisis develops and a solution is necessitated by circumstance. A good example of an important issue which promises to be handled in this way is social security. It is clear to anyone who has examined the projections that within a couple of decades social security will be in very serious trouble. If measures are taken now it seems that social security can be saved without huge difficulty. However, unless taxes are raised it also appears that social security benefits must be trimmed or else the retirement age must be pushed back progressively further. Understandably these measures would be extremely unpopular with those who are now approaching retirement age or with those who already receive social security benefits. This block of voters- the retired and nearly retired- are perhaps the most politically potent demographic in America due to their high voter turnout. This means that any reformer who hopes to tinker with social security will risk the ire of this powerful demographic and hence will be much more unlikely to be re-elected.

Whatever the case, it seems it would be best if we, the people, take matters into our own hands and try to re-make our government into the bastion of freedom and justice it was designed to be.

First among our priorities in re-ordering our government should be the breaking down of the calcification which has occurred which prevents creative responses to any of our social ills. One of the greatest strengths of our modern society is the vast network of open communication which allows anyone with a good idea to share it with many others. Unfortunately, our current "top down" governmental model in which the federal government is in a position to mandate nearly every important response to any given problem negates our society's greatest strength. It guarantees uniformity of response which is itself a guarantee of failure whenever the situation of different affected communities is not uniform. If local governments had greater power to develop their own response instead of depending on federal and state grant money to deal with pressing questions such as transportation, urban development, the environment etc. we would be guaranteed two very important things: 1) the response would almost always be more appropriate for the local situation than anything developed at the federal level could possibly be and 2) there would be a wide range of creative responses which could be shared among communities and would be much more likely to result in the development of new and even better responses. Further, such a system would have its own built-in positive feedback mechanism in that local areas which develop smart strategies would develop stronger economies and so develop greater funds to implement their strategies.

In order for any real change to occur, however, there must be sweeping change in the way that our tax money is handled. In the current system in which the vast majority of the public money is handled, divvied and earmarked for use by the federal government there is no reward for clever or innovative thinking on the local level. Indeed, what is rewarded in the current system is pork barrel legislation and political maneuvering. Who has not heard a senator proudly proclaim that he brings more money into his state than the state pays in taxes?

Things would be bad enough if we merely had our money in the hands of the wrong decision-makers; add to that the current level of opacity in how our tax money is handled and we ensure that abuses and corruption will go unnoticed. Does anyone actually know how much money is available and how it gets spent? Each year when a new federal budget is proposed we are subjected to weeks of conflicting reports about where the money is going and whether we really have enough money to pay our bills or not. The reports one ends up believing generally have more to do with where one's loyalties lie with respect to the current party in power than with any actual objective evidence.

Finally, while we can see that the money is often in the wrong hands and its use is so often hidden from those who pay the taxes, we also have the further handicap that those who are spending our money are doing it much more irresponsibly than even the most spendthrift household. What household could remain solvable if, when the "wants" exceed income, simply decided to go ahead and spend the money anyway? Certainly we may recognize that there are many things which it would be nice for the government to supply to the people, but that list will always be longer than what the government is actually able to provide. Living within one's means is always the first and most important financial lesson which a new married couple must learn if they are ever to develop into a mature married couple. Isn't it fair to ask that much of our own government as well?

If our nation is to have any chance of meeting our problems head on and solving them then we must develop our government into a tool capable of solving problems rather than one which causes nearly as many problems as it solves.

Copyright © 2004

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