Causes of Corruption in America

By Allan Timke

If you are trying to get a handle on what is necessary to get this country back on track, I strongly recommend that you read “Corruption in America: From Benjamin Franklin’s Snuffbox to Citizens United” by Zephyr Teachout. In that book, Teachout provides extensive historical evidence that the prevention of corruption was perhaps the central concept motivating the Founding Fathers.

Originally corruption was often applied to behavior that would merely cause us to shrug our shoulders today. Their broad interpretation of what corruption meant held up largely intact until it began to narrow dramatically in the 1970s, culminating in the Citizens United Supreme Court decision of 2010.

It seems to me that Teachout’s core message is that our overriding principal of goverance has inextricably to marry equality, in all its various incarnations, with the common good. One without the other is the death knell of democracy. Individuals and groups have a right to have their self-interest considered on equal footing, but not to have it satisfied at the expense of the rights of others, or of the common good. Actually, the good citizen should moderate their conception of self-interest with a love of the common good.

The common good (my definition) is social, political, and economic justice for all. Teachout examines the concept closely. It must be reestablished through substantial structural reforms, a transformed democratic process, and through laws that prevent even the opportunity for corruption through transparency, disclosure and prophylactic law (what Teachout calls red-line laws).

The concept of corruption, however, can’t apply almost exclusively to a quid pro quo, e.g., straightforward bribery, as now is most commonly the case in the courts. Rather it must extend to include undue influence and structurally based power differentials, as as realized through phenomena such as the rampant excesses of campaign contributions from PACs, giant corporations, and wealthy donors; and the behind-the scenes activities of their think-tanks like the Heritage Founcation, or the Cato Institute.

Teachout maintains that in the Citizens United case, the supposed First Amendment free speech rights of a private organization were held to overrule virtually all contending rights, and the common good. It is a case where Teachout says the court cites no precedent, in which, in fact, it cannot cite any precedent. Further, in Citizens United the court equates speech with spending.

It is likely no coincidence that this period coincides with a period, well-documented by other authors and scholars, of sustained stagnation in the wages of American workers, and the meteoric rise in wealth at the top of the income ladder. Narrowing the definition of corruption has made life much easier for deep-pocketed donors, and well-paid lobbiests peddling influence.

We’re a long way from what our Founders had in mind. In his closing paragraph Teachout warns that, ” ….. democracy, without constant vigilance against corruption is an unstable, unmoored thing, subject to great gusts of whimsy, and likely to collapse.”

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