Monday, March 09, 2009

"Nothing is more dangerous in public affairs than the influence of private interests"

Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his book The Social Contract, Book III, Chapter 4: Democracy says:


"It is not good that he who makes the law should execute it or that the body of the people should turn its attention away from general perspectives and give it to particular objects. Nothing is more dangerous in public affairs than the influence of private interests, and the abuse of the law by the government is a lesser evil than that corruption of the legislator which inevitably results from the pursuit of private interests. When this happens, the state is corrupted in its very substance and no reform is possible. A people which never misused the powers of government would never misuse independence, and a people which always governed itself well would not need to be governed."


Of which the key point to ponder is:

"... the abuse of the law by the government is a lesser evil than that corruption of the legislator which inevitably results from the pursuit of private interests."


Having just come through a time when our government has evidenced both such evil's... abuse of law and corruption of the legislators... it is worth pondering his view.

Abuse of law has been horrendous. At first blush it seems to be easily the worst of these two evils. And indeed, I think that is true.

However, Rousseau's point here appears to be that the one comes before the other and makes the second not only possible but subsequently impossible to get rid of. I think this is true.

Corruption of our legislature by moneyed interests has weakened our democracy greatly. It has broken down the rule of law. It has led to alteration of our law, tax code, oversight and such to the benefit of the few over the needs of the many. It has created an environment of government for sale and one of power for powers sake in a dog eat dog environment where the idea that he who dies with then most toys wins.

This is where the abuse of law in government comes from, this is what makes it possible. In an environment where the legislature was pure (or relatively pure), where money spoke no louder then poverty, law would be crafted towards the needs of the many not the wants of the few. Government policy would be geared towards the good of all not towards the greed of the few.

The needs of the many require that power be kept in check. Hence foreign wars of adventure and profit for the moneyed class would not be allowed. Principles of democracy would be sustained and advanced at home and would form the basis of foreign policy abroad rather than principles of hegemony and empire.

Hegemony and empire are structures of power. They have no place in the democracy of the many. They exist only in a world governed by the power games of the few. No hegemonic dreams, no glories of empire mean no torture of opponents, no creation of an atmosphere of terror to oppress the masses, no slaughter of innocents, no invasion of the rights and privacies of citizens at home.

Corruption of the legislator weakens the legislature. The strongest branch of government here in America was intended to be the legislative branch. A weakened legislature leads to a power shift towards the executive. There are benefits to a strong executive. However, the executive is by nature a branch of individual power rather than government by the law of the many. And power tends to corrupt. Even the best person in possession of that much power will almost inevitably succumb to at least some temptation of power over law. A lower quality individual will succumb to such temptations quite rapidly and in full. Frankly, they will likely arrive in office having already done so.

So, in attempting to solve the problems we have been experiencing in government it is necessary to take a two pronged approach. The first is what I call the band-aid approach. Immediately apply remedies to the problems at hand. An example of this would be to review all the signing statements and executive orders of the Bush/Cheney administration as well as the Office of Legal Counsel documents, immediately abrogating the obviously illegal, unethical or immoral ones. These are band-aids to stop the immediate bleeding.

The second prong is the most important and that is to get to the root cause and correct it so that such abuses of power do not recur. This means focusing on the legislative branch and the manners in which it becomes corrupted. This leads immediately to the influence of money. Money influences in many ways. In reviewing the McCain-Feingold campaign financing law the Supreme Court recognized correctly that money is like water, it will always find the cracks. This is true but it does not mean that reform, restriction and control are not possible. Quite the opposite. It means that the system needs to be structured in such a way as to best limit the cracks. It also means a constant review and audit of policies and procedures in order to find, monitor and plug the cracks before they break open the dam.

The influence of money is perhaps greatest in the electoral system itself. Most members of Congress are of the moneyed class. Political campaigns are won in virtually every case by the campaign that spends the most money. Consequently politicians spend more time raising money in campaigns then they do talking with the citizens they are supposed to represent.

There are those who argue that campaign finance limitations are unconstitutional. If this is so then this is a clear case where the Constitution needs amending. The influence of money is a grave danger to our form of government.


"Nothing is more dangerous in public affairs than the influence of private interests, and the abuse of the law by the government is a lesser evil than that corruption of the legislator which inevitably results from the pursuit of private interests. When this happens, the state is corrupted in its very substance and no reform is possible."

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