Monday, May 2, 2016

Commerce and Corruption

If you follow New York State political news, then you know that corruption scandals have played a big role in both party politics and in election news. So-called "ethics reform" has been a big talking point over the past year or so, with people pointing fingers at the Dean Skelos and Sheldon Silver convictions. Both men took money for favors, and used their discretion in their respective positions, to force certain outcomes each man considered personally advantageous. "Get the money out of politics" has become an election year mantra once again, the underlying assumption being that commerce skews political power and undermines the noble intent of these otherwise noble people. I call bullshit on this.

The cycle has to start somewhere, and it seems pretty obvious to me that it starts in the edifice of state power. The rules are laid out: Bureaucrat position A is allowed to exercise specific duties (i.e. activities otherwise considered criminal, belligerent, manipulative, or simple bullying if they are performed privately) within a certain range of discretion. Relatively speaking, these rules are pretty rigid and unforgiving, and these duties and methods are fairly specific. The process becomes ossified and archaic, slowing down or halting entrepreneurial action, creating a well-lit roadblock to commerce. Enter the bribe.

In response to these rules, clever individuals figure out where the roadblocks are, and find ways to circumvent or bypass them, enlisting the aid of the gatekeeper bureaucrat to "look the other way," or "grease the wheels" to "get things done." In exchange, the bureaucrat is compensated commensurate with his ability to make the rules more binding or less binding to particular parties. Deals are made in secret, while the official line is "bribery is illegal and wrong!" Keeping such activities illegal creates barriers to entry for all but the most politically connected and wealthy, and the bureaucrat can tailor his services around a small list of particular clients, charging high margins for the privilege.

The government bureaucrat is not noble, but is most certainly human. Market activities find ways to close the doors on moral hazard, and create beacons as big as life, allowing people to scrutinize the otherwise opaque wall erected through legislation, between the political class and the private class. Without commerce (bribery), the bureaucrat is absolute in his domain of power and discretion; with commerce, there is at least some wiggle room for some of us, and the bureaucrat must cater to his customer base. Power corrupts commerce, not the other way around. If not for the well-lit roadblocks, individuals would be spending their money in other areas, rather than lining the pockets of the politicians.

If you really want to close the doors on corruption, you need more commerce, not less. Legalizing bribery forces a bureaucrat's margins down, and broadens the base of people he will need to cater to in order to continue to enjoy his earnings. Along the way, the roadblocks do not just become clearly visible, but they become invasive and palpable, naturally calling into question the legitimacy of the political power in question. Public outcry does the rest, the shackles come off, the bureaucracy becomes smaller, and life gets better. Think about it...

1 comment:

  1. Great point -- it's a perspective on this I had not considered, personally. As always, prohibition on anything between consenting adults seems to virtually if not totally always make things worse, not better. The bribes happen, anyways, but this way -- it's out in the open and the light is shined upon it as opposed to it lurking amongst the barely visible shadows in the darkness.

    The cries to 'take money out of politics!' are absolutely nonsensical. The Soviet Union managed to 'take money out of politics', and yet it was the most corrupt political regime ever seen on the face pf the planet. If you somehow manage to 'remove money from politics' (and you can't, but if you did), then it would become much harder to both literally and figuratively account for patronage -- and it simply falls far more into the abstract, as it did in the Soviet Union.


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