Viewing Political Corruption More Broadly

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Earlier this year, veteran political writer Thomas Edsall reported an eyebrow-raising fact about Americans’ views toward government. Polling by Gallup, he noted, found that the proportion of Americans who believed that corruption is “widespread” in government had risen from 59 percent in 2006 to 79 percent in 2013. “In other words,” Edsall wrote, “we were cynical already, but now we’re in overdrive.”

Corruption is hardly a negligible issue. Americans rightly have very little tolerance for public officials who are on the take. Officials who violate the law in this regard should face criminal prosecution and incarceration.

But what’s notable about our corruption laws is how narrow they’ve become. This point is driven home by Fordham Law School Professor Zephyr Teachout in her new book, Corruption in America. “As a matter of federal constitutional law,” she writes, “corruption now means only ‘quid pro quo’ corruption.”

Teachout argues that our Founders were quite sensitive to ways in which public behavior might promote private interest. As late as the second half of the 1800s, American society was alarmed by the notion that private individuals might seek to influence government on their own or others’ behalf. “If any of the great corporations of the country were to hire adventurers… to procure the passage of a general law with a view to the promotion of their private interests, the moral sense of every right-minded man would instinctively denounce the employer and the employed as steeped in corruption,” the Supreme Court declared in 1874.

We have another word for “adventurers” these days. We call them lobbyists.

I would hardly contend that all who seek to promote their private interests are corrupt. But I do think the Founders had a valuable insight when they saw that a focus on private concerns could lead to neglect of the common good.

I have the uneasy feeling that too many politicians are self-absorbed, failing to put the country first, and using their office to promote their private interests. Our Founders had very firm ideas about the importance to the nation of “virtue” in a public official — and they were thinking expansively about the basic standards of public accountability.

Maybe it’s time we looked to them for guidance, and not think of corruption only in the narrow sense of violations of specific laws or precepts, but more broadly in terms of failing to pursue the common good.

 

Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. 

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