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.   Continue reading