Fix the problem, not just the corruption
Gary M. Galles, Guest Columnist
LA Daily News
The widening circle of federal “public servants” being connected to the Jack Abramoff influence-peddling scandal has others looking for ways to inoculate themselves from the fallout this November. Republicans are readying ethics-reform legislation to that end. Others are calling for new campaign-finance restrictions. But while such responses reflect public outrage at the latest evidence of corruption in the system, it is not clear that they will lead to a more responsible government.
New ethics rules, corruption laws or campaign finance restrictions are unlikely to contribute much to fixing our nation’s governance problems because these failings are primarily rooted in what the government is allowed to do, not in how people manage to get the ear of those who control its levers of power.
The central problem is that long-standing constitutional constraints limiting government power have been progressively eroded, so that government has increasingly turned from being the protector of the rights of its citizens against the violations of others to being itself a pervasive violator of those rights. The resulting ability to help political friends at others’ expense leads to the abuse of government power, regardless of how access to elected officials is obtained.
Consider Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution, granting Congress the power to levy “uniform taxes” to provide for the “general welfare.” In contrast, today’s tax code is filled with discriminatory taxes designed to burden particular subgroups of the population. Further, a large proportion of federal spending is designed to benefit certain groups at taxpayers’ expense, as illustrated by the massive amounts of pork in recent legislation.
There is nothing in the Constitution that even hints that such taxes for the provision of benefits to special interests is a legitimate federal function. But the fact that such policies are now considered acceptable – even commendable – leads to abusive government.
Consider also the Fifth Amendment’s statement, “nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.” While this prevents the government from physically taking your property without payment, current court interpretations allow governments to force the sale of almost any property, whenever they choose, and to take large parts of its value to benefit particular special interests through regulations and restrictions.
For example, rent-control laws do not physically take apartments from their owners, but transfer much of their value to current tenants. This ability to push costs onto others in order to help supporters is another source of abusive government.
Similar reinterpretations have befallen other parts of the Constitution, such as the contracts and commerce clauses, which essentially have been transformed from barriers against government intrusion into open invitations under even the flimsiest of pretexts. Again, the effect has been to expand the power of legislators and bureaucrats into areas our Founding Fathers tried to put beyond their reach.
The result of such changes has been an increase in the power of government officials to do what our Constitution formerly ruled out, and this has led to governance that is a far cry from one primarily concerned with the general welfare. Once these powers have been seized by government, access to government officials in ways considered corrupt – as with the Abramoff scandal – can worsen the results for others who will be forced to bear the burdens of every special favor.
But reforms in how access to the powerful can legally be acquired would not solve the underlying problem: government with few constraints on its ability to do favors to friends, which necessarily harms others.
Reforms pushed in response to the latest government corruption scandal address aspects of irresponsible government that are too far from its core. Unless the Constitution’s restrictions on government powers are taken more seriously, they will do little to produce a more responsible government.
Gary M. Galles is a professor of economics at Pepperdine University. Write to him in care of Pepperdine University, Malibu, CA 90263.