Every time an elected official is arrested for corruption, the media and other politicians point pious fingers at the individual, distancing themselves from the guy in the expensive suit taking the perp walk. That misses the point. It’s not just the individual who’s to blame. The statist system itself is immoral.
Let me be clear. Politicians such as Jack B. Johnson deserve scorn, but not just for the things they do that are illegal. The legal things they do are just as bad. Until he was arrested, Johnson was the chief executive of the county government in Prince George’s County, Md. During his eight years as the county executive, he took hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes in exchange for steering development to favored companies. Nobody will ever know the total that he took.
When things such as this happen, the politicians supporters are hurt and feel betrayed. And newspapers go into overdrive to start covering the story after it’s too late. (In this case, the Washington post has quite a collection of stories documenting various aspects of the case.) But why does no one in these stories question the system that’s at the root of it? Why doesn’t anyone question why a government official has the power to decide who gets to build what?
The key insight that started me down the path to becoming a libertarian years ago came when it occurred to me that politicians had the ability to accept illegal (and legal) bribes to make things happen because the state system gives them power to pick winners and losers. Because the modern state has the power to hurt some companies and individuals, those people and companies have the incentive to make friends with politicians — to buy them off, either legally or illegally. And because the modern state has the power to make some people and companies hugely wealthy, those people and companies have the rational incentive to make make deals with those politicians to get licenses, permissions and contracts. If you take away the politicians’ special power to grant licenses and permissions, they have nothing to sell to the highest bidder.
Why does a politician get to regulate so many things about our lives? It’s because well-meaning people agitate for government to have the power to “protect” people by making decisions for them. Most of the restrictions we have that lead to these people having too much power goes back to well-meaning people — the spiritual descendants of the so-called “progressive movement” that started in the 19th century — demanding that governments take more and more power to “help” in one way or another. Of course, by the time the power is actually implemented, incentives take over. Human rational beings end up acting in the ways that the incentives predict they will. The step further and further over ethical, moral and legal lines — until the point where people who might have started out with good intentions are taking millions of dollars to make decisions to favor certain people, decisions they have no business making.
Pretty soon, most politicians are so full of themselves that they’re doing petty things at the public expense that make it clear where their interests lie. Most of them are discreet about it, in my experience. Some of them, though — such as Johnson — as open about it. At least as far back as 2006, it was clear that Johnson thought the public owed him something. In fact, he makes it clear in this story that he thinks taxpayers expect him to fly first class:
Johnson flew business class to Senegal in December 2005 to attend a ribbon-cutting ceremony for homes built by a local developer. The cost of his travel was $6,003, charged to the county, and paid for by taxpayers. Johnson was quoted as saying, “I always fly business class or first class. I think the people of Prince George’s County expect me to. I don’t think they expect me to be riding in a seat with four across and I’m in the middle.” He also generated controversy by staying at the luxurious Bellagio Hotel and The Wynn when traveling to Las Vegas for recent shopping center conventions, two of the most expensive hotels in the city.
For many politicians, it’s not just about the money. It’s also about their colossal egos. As Johnson was preparing to leave office last year, he spent nearly a quarter of a million in tax money to print 300,000 copies of a glossy booklet to be mailed to every home in the county. This booklet celebrated himself, of course. After his arrest, the expensive print job sits in a warehouse with addresses still printed on them, waiting to be mailed. (See the photo at right.)
It’s tempting to see Johnson as just a sad case of a man who’s gone wrong, but the truth is that he’s the perfect example of a man responding to the incentives that the system gives him. It’s true that he’s corrupt. It’s true that he should go to prison. (He pleaded guilty last month.) But it’s the state that his behavior really indicts.
There are many good and well-intentioned people working in the state political system. Many of those will never be in positions to abuse the public trust. And some of those won’t take the chance to abuse their positions anyway. But even if we take the honest, well-intentioned politicians who will never do anything illegal, they’re making decisions about our lives that they have no rational or moral justification to make, even though the majority of people accept it.
It’s time to accept that we must indict more than just dishonest and corrupt politicians. We have to indict and dismantle our enemy — the state.