Sunday, January 29, 2017

The corruption of freebies in politics

euro_bank_notes_hidden_in_sleeve_-_white_background_ By Kiwiev (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
By Kiwiev via Wikimedia Commons
By freebies, I don't mean swag ; I don't mean rides in jets and helicopters provided to politicians by prominent business leaders. In fact, I don't mean corruption of politicians at all, although crooks in office do cause major problems. I mean a much more serious problem: the corruption of the voters and, by extension, the political process.

Commentators have long derided political promises as bribing voters with heir own money, but the purposes of legitimate political debate include the best use of resources. The process gets corrupted when politicians promise someone else will pay. One example of this we all know: the slogan "make the rich pay", an aspiration often stated but seldom realized. Calls to tax the rich frequently give rise not to better services but rather to increasingly convoluted tax avoidance schemes. Governments have had much greater luck extracting money from people accused of crimes. Conservative governments in the eighties, motivated to reward their friends with deep tax cuts and to punish those they disdained, invented a series of creative and mischievous government financing tools, from the outright forfeiture of assets to fine surcharges.

Donald Trump's promise to force the Mexican government to pay for a massive public works project on the southern border of the US has a precedent: Ronald Reagan's government sent Oliver North on an unconstitutional fund-raising tour through the palaces of depots to obtain funding for the "contra" mercenary terrorists the US Congress had explicitly refused to support. Mr. Trump has extended this idea in two ways: proposing a major infrastructure program employing hundreds of thousands of Americans, and planning to take the money by some form of coercion rather than beg for it.

Working on the Berlin Wall By Alexander Buschorn  via Wikimedia Commons
By Alexander Buschorn  via Wikimedia Commons
Whenever anyone other than the public pays for a government initiative, the effects include the corruption of the democratic process. The willingness of the public to pay for things acts as an effective check on the ambitions of politicians and bureaucrats alike. Let government find a way to pay for things without the participation of society, and that restraint goes out the window. Taxes, by long tradition, require some fairness; the public debate properly includes the question of who ought to pay how much for what. When politicians tell the public someone else will pay, they often go after those least able to resist, and that leads to unethical practices. Radley Balko has written about the ways the municipalities St. Louis County maintain their ludicrously over-governed structure on the backs of the poor. Some tax cutting advocates justify their position as wanting to shrink government, but their actual results look like Captain Kirk's attempt to turn off the murderous M-5 computer in Star Trek: the machine vaporises a crew member, and its inventor tells Kirk: "M-5's analysis told it it needed a new source of power. The ensign simply got in the way."

Most of us understand watching "free" TV makes us not to customer but the product. Businesses  identify the person or entity paying the bills as their customer. When the justice system raises most of its money from forfeitures, that makes the drug cartels the justice system's customer. Prosecutors and police officers have a stake in maintaining the drug war and its supply of forfeited money going. Perversely, that means they have a lot to lose if anyone solved the problem of addiction. If Mr. Trump succeeded in making the Mexican government put up the money for his signature initiative, that would make the Mexican government, rather than the American people, his customer.

Robert Sheckley, the science fiction writer, once had a character wryly observe that if someone advertises a thing as free, you definitely can't afford it. That may not hold for everything, but it does apply to government services.

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