Everybody likes to rail on about corrupt politicians these days. They sling mud at their opponents, do sleazy things and try to get away with it, hang out with lobbyists, and give special favors to their political friends. Come election time, challengers from the outside always promise to end the corruption that’s inside and bring a fresh start. Then the same thing happens a few years later. Why are our politicians so corrupt?
It’s tempting to think that today’s politicians in Washington, D.C. are corrupt in an unprecedented manner, and to try to find reasons to explain it. Maybe it’s the result of social moral decay. Maybe it’s because the population of the United States has more than tripled since the number of House Representatives was fixed at 435, so representatives can no longer be as close to the people.
Maybe there are specific factors contributing to modern corruption, but I just want to point out for the sake of perspective that this is nothing new. Bill Clinton lied in the 90’s. Nixon had his Watergate scandal in the 70’s. And that’s just very recent history. The ever-helpful Wikipedia has a fantastically long list of federal political scandals going all the way back to the time of George Washington, when a senator was “expelled from the Senate for trying to aid the British in a takeover of West Florida.” One of Andrew Jackson’s appointees embezzled over a million dollars (in the 1830’s) and “fled to Europe to avoid prosecution.” Ulysses S. Grant’s administration had an infamous Whiskey Ring full of bribes and kickbacks that resulted in “110 convictions.” The list is full of suspicious behavior, unsightly cover-ups, and outright fraud. It’s true that the list gets notably longer for more recent administrations – but it’s hard to know if that’s because politicians are more corrupt or if it’s just easier to keep track of them these days. Regardless, the U.S. federal government certainly has a long history of corruption.
Furthermore, the federal government is not the only level at which corruption exists in the U.S. political system. Just look at Illinois, formerly governed by Rod Blagojevich. That’s nothing new either – Wikipedia’s list of state and local political scandals is even longer. And don’t forget about the corruption in tiny municipalities that escapes national news. Just last week I learned about a friend in the lawn care business who was asked for a bribe by a local official to ensure that he would win a contract. He refused and won the contract anyway, but how many local officials in my city alone are padding their pockets with a few hundred dollars apiece from local businessmen who aren’t so scrupulous? Then multiply that by thousands of cities across the United States.
But not only is corruption in politics not limited to any level of United States government or any period of United States history, it is most certainly not limited to the United States. A simple Google search of “why are politicians so corrupt” reveals pages of people asking “why are Israeli politicians so corrupt,” “why are African politicians so brutally corrupt,” and “why is India so dirty and corrupt,” in addition to your run-of-the-mill questions about Chicago and New Jersey. The thorough Wikipedia article about general political corruption includes a World Map Index of perception of coruption, and the United States is actually one of the better countries on the map, perceived as less corrupt than almost the entire continents of Africa, Asia, and South America, as well as large swaths of the Middle East, Indonesia, Central America, and even parts of Europe. It’s not like we have to worry about paying bribes to drug lords or policemen to keep them off our property.
Now it’s entirely possible that US federal politicians are more corrupt than ever before. Congressional approval ratings are at new all-time lows, and the lobbying connections of big business to government can seem incredibly fierce. I’m not saying that it’s not worse, but it’s definitely been bad for a long time. It’s been bad at all layers of US government for a long time. It’s been bad across the entire world for a long time, and it’s much worse in many other places in the world.
It’s almost as if there’s a universal principle that humans in power discover they like power and begin to do shocking things to try to maintain that power. I believe that’s evidence of man’s innate sinful nature, but even if you don’t share my theology, I challenge you to at least think hard about the notion that man is inherently good. Sure, there are benevolent kings in our history books, but the world largely rid itself of monarchs in the last few centuries because most of them weren’t.
That’s why our government system has its formalities of checks and balances. Even if the new leaders always seem to get as corrupt as the old ones, they can’t do whatever they want, and at least we can replace them every few years. We still have the ability to root out corruption – even when politicians are convicted of fraudulent activities, well, at least we convicted them. And every once in awhile we even stumble upon electing integrity-filled citizens who work very hard to suppress those dangerous attractions of power.
But that is not the norm, and it never will be. That is why we must be ever skeptical about granting more power to elected – or worse, appointed – officials. Well-intentioned people often think governments need more power to fix certain problems, but they also should think about what problems they might be able to create. Who watches the watchmen, and all of that. Man is not inherently good, and power will always corrupt. So let us always keep that in mind when we talk about today’s corrupt politicians and what to do about them.