The rich vs. the pols
Walter E. Williams
Wednesday, January 7, 2009
Sometimes I wish there were a humane way to get rid of the rich. Without the rich for whipping boys, we might be able to concentrate on what's best for the 99.5 percent of the rest of us.
Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, with about $60 billion in assets each, are America's richest men. With all that money, what can they force us to do? Can they take our house to make room so another person can build an auto dealership or a casino parking lot? Can they force us to pay money into the government-run retirement Ponzi scheme called Social Security? Can Mr. Buffett and Mr. Gates force us to bus our children to schools out of our neighborhood in the name of diversity? Unless they are granted power by politicians, rich people have little power to force us to do anything.
A GS-9, or a lowly municipal clerk, has far more life-and-death power over us. It is they to whom we must turn to for permission to build a house, ply a trade, open a restaurant and myriad other activities. It's government people, not rich people, who have the power to coerce and make our lives miserable. Coercive power goes a long way toward explaining political corruption.
Gov. Rod Blagojevich's hawking of Barack Obama's vacated U.S. Senate seat; Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charlie Rangel's alleged tax writing favors; former Rep. William Jefferson's business bribes; and the Jack Abramoff scandal are mere pimples on the government corruption landscape. We can think of these and similar acts as jailable illegal corruption. They pale in comparison to what's for all practical purposes the same thing, but simply legal corruption.
For example, according to the Miami Herald, by March 2008, the powerful Florida Fanjul sugar family had given more than $300,000 to politicians and political committees. They didn't fork over all that money to help politicians to uphold and defend the U.S. Constitution. Like businessmen who approach Charlie Rangel, Rod Blagojevich and William Jefferson, they give politicians money because they want a favor in return - namely import restrictions on sugar so they can charge Americans higher prices. In the case of the Fanjuls, and thousands of others buying favors, they are engaged in legal corruption.
Legalized corruption is widespread and that's the job of 35,000 Washington, D.C., lobbyists earning millions upon millions of dollars. They represent America's big and small corporations, big and small labor unions and even foreign corporations and unions. They are not spending billions of dollars in political contributions to encourage and assist the White House and Congress to uphold and defend the U.S. Constitution. They spend that money in the expectations of favors that will be bestowed upon them at the expense of some other American or group of Americans.
This power helps explain, for example, why a seat on the House Ways and Means Committee, not to mention its chairmanship, is so highly coveted. For the right price, a tax loophole, saving a company tens of millions of dollars, can be inserted into tax law, a la the Charlie Rangel scandal. At state levels, governors can award public works contracts to a generous constituent. At the local levels mayors can confer favors such as providing subsidies for sports stadia and convention centers. When politicians can give favors, they will find buyers.
The McCain-Feingold law was to get "money out of politics" but more money was spent in the 2008 election cycle than ever. The only way to reduce corruption and money in Washington is to reduce the power politicians have over our lives. James Madison was right when he suggested, "All men having power ought to be distrusted to a certain degree." Thomas Jefferson warned, "The greatest calamity which could befall us would be submission to a government of unlimited powers." That's what today's Americans have given Washington - unlimited powers.
Walter E. Williams is a nationally syndicated columnist and a professor of economics at George Mason University.