Get Rid of the High Places

In one of the least surprising developments of 2006, a Louisiana politician has been snared in a corruption scandal. Democratic Congressman William Jefferson has allegedly been caught on tape accepting bribes, and a former staffer of his has pleaded guilty to bribing the congressman.

Political reporters ask whether this will dull Democratic efforts to paint the Republican Party as corrupt. Capitol Hill and legal writers want to know if the FBI breached separation of powers by raiding a congressional office. Conservatives and libertarians should be asking why Jefferson-or any politician-has been given so much power to hand out our money in exchange for some cold cash.

The FBI alleges that Jefferson used his position to grease the skids for a telecommunications deal between a Kentucky company and the Nigerian government. In exchange, the allegation goes, Jefferson would get a share of the new company to be formed out of the deal.

The FBI search warrant alleges: “The official acts performed by Congressman Jefferson in exchange for his actual and/or solicited receipt of stock in these foreign entities, and other things of value include: introducing [prospective investor Lori Mody] to officials at the Export-Import Bank of the United States to assist [Mody] in obtaining loan guarantees for the Nigerian and Ghanaian business ventures.” (The Export-Import Bank is a federal agency that uses tax dollars to subsidize U.S. exports.)

This is the most predictable thing in the world: Take one Louisiana politician, one foreign leader, and one U.S. agency dedicated to handing money out to corporations, put them together, and what did you think would happen?

Bear with me for an analogy:

Two of my nephews on my wife’s side are adorable twin boys who are also amazingly mischievous. They will slam, push, throw, and climb anything they can-often working as a team to topple the larger items. My sister-in-law has done everything in her power to correct their behavior, but give the boys just a moment alone with a floor lamp and lampshades will be flying and cords will swing wildly. The only remedy was to remove everything from the living room that these boys could possibly move.

As a fireplace poker is to an 18-month-old boy, so is a federal subsidy program to a politician. No good can come from leaving it in his reach; it’s possible he might do no harm with it; but leave the two in the same room long enough-and you’re asking for trouble.

All conservatives ought to know, and repeat often, Wheeler’s Law: “The way to get rid of corruption in high places is to get rid of the high places.” That is, the way to stop politicians from using subsidy agencies for purposes of graft and personal advancement is to abolish the subsidy agencies.

So, while Congress scampers to make new ethics rules in response to the Abramoff and Jefferson scandals, we see once again why the conservative answer to this problem is the libertarian one. Conservatism, understood in the sense of Russell Kirk or Edmund Burke, largely means acting upon the realizations that man is fallen and that power corrupts.

Creating government agencies whose job it is to dole out money (or empowering the government to further pick winners and losers in the economy through taxation and regulation) introduces what Catholics would call “an occasion of sin.” For the not-yet-corrupt, corporate welfare acts as a temptation. For the corrupt, it acts as a handy tool.

My forthcoming book, The Big Ripoff: How Big Business and Big Government Steal Your Money tells entertaining tales of corruption and big business getting rich off of big government. On that theme there are enough stories to fill a library. The lesson we ought to draw from this is not that we need stricter ethics laws or more government oversight-it’s that politicians, especially ones from New Orleans, will be corrupt. By limiting government we can make sure they do as little damage as possible.