Jonathan Rauch’s recent Atlantic piece has a provocative title: “The Case for Corruption.” Extending an argument about the unintended effects of international efforts to combat corruption to the domestic sphere, Rauch asserts that “in most political systems, the right amount of corruption is greater than zero. Leaders need to be able to reward followers and punish turncoats and free agents.” According to Rauch, the U.S. political system used to give party leaders several tools to enforce discipline: pork-barrel spending, earmarks, campaign contributions, committee assignments, and endorsements. The problem, he says, is that these mechanisms have become too weak–that we do not have enough of the “honest graft” famously celebrated by the Tammany Hall politician George Washington Plunkitt.
Rauch makes a valuable point that pork barrel spending (including earmarks), though unseemly, might serve a useful function in facilitating deals. But does this mean that some amount of “corruption” can be good, as his title implies? Maybe not–it depends on your definition of corruption, and Rauch is using a very expansive, and perhaps misleading one. Rauch also urges us to change current regulations to empower party leaders, and is persuasive–to an extent.
(1) Rauch’s “Corruption”
Rauch lumps a wide range of behaviors–embezzlement, patronage, rigging of bids for government contracts, bribery, pork-barrel spending, certain forms of campaign finance, etc.–under the label “corruption.” Perhaps ironically, in equating legislative earmarks and closed-door budget deals with Tammany Hall-style bribery, kickbacks, and patronage, Rauch is making the same rhetorical move as proponents of the reforms he’s criticizing–characterizing behaviors that are (or were) legal and ethical, but that seem to many shady, opaque, or distasteful, as “corrupt” (as opposed to merely bad).
But, properly understood, Rauch’s argument is not a claim that some amount of corruption is good, but rather than some types of political deal-making are simply not “corruption,” especially when they do not involve any unlawful misappropriation of resources or personal enrichment. Simply put, what Rauch has really done is not to make the “case for corruption,” but rather the case that practices like earmarking are not, in fact, corrupt (even if they would not be part of politics in a perfect world).
Who cares what’s “corrupt?” Well, there is now a great deal of research on the economic and political effects of corruption (the traditional sort of corruption–graft, bribery, embezzlement, etc.), and the weight of this evidence is that, contra Plunkitt, in most situations corruption has very bad effects. Categorizing all sorts of other shady practices under the umbrella label “corruption” obfuscates these important and robust findings. For this reason, Rauch’s article shows that there are risks in characterizing every political practice that one doesn’t like as “corruption.” The normative force of that charge may become diluted and diminished through overuse.
(2) Rauch’s Policy Proposals
Rauch does not just bemoan the lack of tools for party leaders: he advocates several changes to the current regulatory scheme. His proposals are attractive if one accepts his premise that the current U.S. government dysfunction is caused by party leaders’ lack of tools to keep members in line. But that premise is debatable. A more plausible cause (to me) is political polarization. In that case, Rauch’s proposal to eliminate campaign donation restrictions is misguided because political fund-raising from private donors exacerbates polarization; a new way of financing elections might be the only solution. Put another way, Rauch’s argument for more tools for party leaders is most persuasive when dealing with internal Congressional mechanisms (read: earmarks); when he extends the argument to interactions between politicians and citizens, his proposal might create more problems than it solves.