Politics: Marketplace of ideas now just a marketplace
There’s a handy list Foreign Policy compiled of a few of the more egregious cases of corruption committed last year. Reading over this list, what doesn’t cease to amaze is the scale at which many of the corrupt work: They all seem to have learned the lesson that “you may as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb.” In 17th-century England, this was a real calculation: Sheep-stealing was a capital offense, no matter the age or size of the beast. In our modern climate of rampant corruption among the high-powered elite, the 21st-century rewrite of the phrase should be: “Might as well get off scot-free for a billion as a million.”
At the relatively modest — but widely publicized — end, the U.S. Justice Department indicted 30 officials of soccer’s governing body, FIFA, for what the FBI believes is “rampant, systemic and deep-rooted” corruption. Officials stand accused of pocketing bribes in the uncountable millions over several decades.
At the more ambitious end, investigations by new Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari have found that Sambo Dusaki, national security advisor of the previous leader, Goodluck Jonathan, had allegedly relieved the state coffers of $2 billion. Dusaki claimed the funds were for military equipment needed to fight the violent terrorist group, Boko Haram. His good financial year ended badly: arrested and brought to court in December. He was charged with only a fraction — $68 million — of what he is suspected of taking.
In between, the Wall Street Journal claimed Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak had salted away $700 million in his private account, which he denies; Guatemala’s President Otto Perez was forced to resign because of bribery allegations; more than 20 judges have been charged with agreeing to accept bribes in Ghana; while John Ashe, a former president of the UN Assembly and ambassador for Antigua and Barbuda, is accused of taking bribes amounting to $500 million from a Chinese businessman, a charge he denies.
There are corruptions and then there are corruptions that undermine the very fabric of civil society. Those above, if proven, would seem to be serious breaches of the law and even more of trust. But there are others that, while remaining almost always within the law, are even more destructive. These corruptions wear the cloak of propriety yet produce great social divisions and permit the powerful to wrest funds from the powerless.
A few days before Christmas, the New York Times carried a story that said, in terms both bald and bold, that the very richest Americans have had developed for themselves “a sophisticated and astonishingly effective apparatus for shielding their fortunes. Some call it the ‘income defense industry,’ consisting of a high-priced phalanx of lawyers, estate planners, lobbyists and anti-tax activists who exploit and defend a dizzying array of tax maneuvers, virtually none of them available to taxpayers of more modest means.” The effect, said the Times, has been to create a kind of “private tax system” that carves deep into the state’s ability to tax them, and puts the very wealthy’s tax payments on the same level, proportionately, as those on middle class incomes.
Many of those who take part in this system of tax avoidance have given substantial sums to candidates for the Republican presidential nomination. But there are liberals in there too, including George Soros, who calls strongly for higher taxes on the rich and has funded hundreds of liberal candidates, causes and movements, including huge payments to the post-Communist states of East and Central Europe to help them build free-market institutions.
Why should we see those who give generously, to parties and candidates and other causes, as dangerous to society? French historian and commentator Pierre Rosenvallon explained why in a talk he gave in Florence’s European University, arguing that the huge disparities of income within the Western states (to say nothing of those between developed and developing states) are cancerous for politics. This wealth gap undermines our understanding of equality “as a relation, as a way of making a society, of producing and living in common […] a democratic quality and not only a measure of the distribution of wealth.”
And where wealth gives the very rich huge access to political goods and decisions, that “democratic quality” suffers. It cannot be a coincidence that all of the Republican candidates are proposing dramatic tax cuts. This includes even the most populist of them, Donald Trump, in spite of his crowd-pleasing call for hedge fund managers to pay more. These proposed cuts would lower taxes on the middle classes – but would assist the mega-rich more.
The billions of dollars U.S. candidates rake in come overwhelmingly from wealthy donors, whose political weight is thus much greater than other citizens. The political sphere has devolved from a marketplace of ideas to a simple marketplace, where the deals made are the more potent and damaging for being unspoken. Citizenship, said Rosenvallon, “involves equality as participation.” There are very few who can be a member of the political-wealth communities created around the presidential, gubernatorial, senatorial and congress politicians — and these few benefit disproportionately.
This is a global phenomenon. In Japan last spring, the government of Shinzo Abe was drawn into a scandal over favoring companies that had given (quite modest) sums to his campaigns. In India, allegations of electoral-financial malpractice are the subject of everyday journalism. In France, charges brought against directors of a public relations company that had allegedly falsely billed the former President Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP party for work done in 2012 loom over his efforts to return to the political fight. Even in the UK, a modest spender on elections, the Electoral Reform Society has called for an end to “shady deals and suspect practices,” including the exchange of honors and seats in the House of Lords for cash donations.
The domination of the wealthy in politics is now increasingly seen for what it is: an affront to civil society. It is not the only downside of growing inequality, but it is one of the most corrosive. A new year could have worse resolutions than to produce credible plans and actions to reduce it.