Would the US Really Benefit from More Corruption? A Comment on Rauch

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.

7 thoughts on “Would the US Really Benefit from More Corruption? A Comment on Rauch

  1. Very interesting post! I agree with your observations that Rauch’s argument is not claiming that some amount of corruption is good and is instead advocating that certain political conduct should not be considered corruption.

    I also am a bit doubtful about Rauch’s policy proposals for reducing U.S. government proposals. His policy proposals relate to creating tools for party leaders to “self-regulate” their own party members. Such proposals rely on a perhaps naive assumption that party leaders will automatically be trustworthy enough to take on the role as the “regulators” of the party. Additionally, some concerns worth noting relate to the transparency of such “regulation” and whether citizens will actually have a meaningful role on making sure this self-regulation is successful.

    Building off on your views on the cause of U.S. government dysfunction (political polarization), I think that creating a new culture that challenges this polarization will be more effective than Rauch’s proposal.

    • Maryum, while I share your skepticism of some of Rauch’s proposals, I’m equally skeptical of relying on culture to fix some of our political pathologies. (At least, relying on culture, independent of the hard political realities that form it.) I agree with Michael that solutions such as earmarks seem more likely to be effective than some of Rauch’s other ideas regarding party control. But I’d love to hear more about what you mean by “creating a new culture that challenges this polarization.”

      Maybe there’s an overlap in ideas, here. For example, I think one thing that has led to the gridlock is an ideologization (if that’s a word) of our politics. When politics is more about having people’s (non-ideological) interests taken care of, it’s possible to find common ground. But when voters are willing to sacrifice programs and policies for ideological purity, the effectiveness of the system tends to break down. That is to some degree a cultural question: If you see taking care of your constituents’ needs as corruption, the main motivator behind compromise and effective government gets short-circuited. But if you see taking care of your constituents’ needs as, you know, the fundamental purpose of an elected official, then there’s room for collaborative policymaking.

  2. Michael, thanks for the post! I agree with your incisive comments about Rauch’s article. I do think the article’s main move is definitional, not substantive. And a confusing and slightly troubled one at that: He begins by referring to Plunkitt’s definition of “honest graft,” but then uses the term to apply to things like earmarks. But Plunkitt’s “honest graft” wasn’t just about a functioning system of politics: it included significant personal enrichment, for example when Plunkitt would buy land right before it was needed for public works projects, making an enormous return based on his insider knowledge. In contrast, earmarks were more about greasing the political system than about personal enrichment. When politicians did use them for personal enrichment, they were investigated and often convicted for self-dealing. So I think Rauch is playing fast and loose even with his own definition of corruption.

    But I think Rauch has a generally good point, which is that (as the picture at the top of the article shows) corruption can have a “greasing” influence on politics. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the removal of earmarks has coincided with the increased gridlock in Congress.

    There’s one other subtle theme in Rauch’s article that I’d love your take on, and it’s one that Rick has commented on in some of his posts. And that is transparency. Rauch’s comparison of the machine politics of yore versus the gridlock of today seems to focus largely on the difference between behind-closed-doors negotiations, versus the current, highly televised showdowns over budgeting. It’s interesting that many of the same transparency techniques that have probably helped root out some kinds of corruption have also contributed to the gridlock in our government. Rauch’s argument once again points out that transparency can be a double-edged sword!

    • Thanks for your comment, Eden. I agree with you (and Rauch) that increased transparency–at least as it is currently implemented–brings about costs as well as benefits. A particularly visible cost is political posturing, but a more subtle and dangerous one is changing behavior to avoid controversy. This paper suggests that the latter costs can be particularly high in complex fields such as medicine: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0277953611006319

  3. I understand Rauch’s argument that allowing certain things like pork-barrel spending and earmarks can lead to more party discipline. But how exactly does more party discipline benefit America, especially given the degree of polarization in Washington?

    • Raj, you’re right that he frames it in terms of party discipline, but I suspect what he means is the kind of discipline that used to be associated with party leaders compromising with each other and then bringing along their respective parties. That’s why I read the article as really being about compromise and coalition-building, rather than party discipline, strictly speaking.

  4. As others have discussed above, whether an increase in mechanisms to increase party discipline would be good or bad for U.S. politics seems like a contested issue.

    Michael, I’d be interested in getting your thoughts on how your analysis translates to non-U.S. countries, particularly to developing countries that have weaker institutional capacity and rule-of-law values.

    I have conflicting impulses about this question. One possibility is that Rauch’s argument works better in developing countries, because minimal protections for the rule of law might mean that questionable tactics like bribery, embezzlement, earmarks are the only effective way for political leaders to maintain control. But I think you could also tell a different story: that in countries that lack strong protections for the rule of law, quasi-corrupt behavior at the top of the political system spurs similar activities further down in a country’s political-economic system, and that this kind of corruption (moreso than corruption within the government) could have pernicious effects.

    Also, on a slightly broader note, I think the Rauch piece suffers for its failure to fully consider the negative externalities that might result from intra-Congress corruption. Perhaps it is true that earmarks/logrolling etc. increase the likelihood that Congress will pass desirable legislation. But what effect do endemic quasi-corrupt activities have on our society as a whole, and on the norm that rent-seeking behavior is morally suspect? This question is probably unanswerable, but I have a hard time buying his analysis without more analysis of system-level effects.

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