"It is said that power corrupts, but actually it's more true that power attracts the corruptible. The sane are usually attracted by other things than power." – David Brin (1950- )
Weak moral compass
We must forever be grateful to British MPs for leaving their zippers undone. The revelations about how they boosted their incomes show that many of them find it hard to tell right from wrong. It's no surprise. Politics is a dirty business, bound to attract those who have a weak moral compass. Flies are attracted to dung heaps because the warm smelly environment provides their eggs with an ideal medium to thrive and hatch. In the same way, the political environment is a breeding ground for the ambitions of those who can live with - or who enjoy - the smell.
The revelations of small-scale rapacity, by those who were too stupid to cover up what they were doing or those who miss the point that cheating is not the right way to behave, provide rare insight into the mindset of the people we trust with responsibility for our welfare. The excuses of "everyone was doing it" or "it was within the rules" are significantly more telling than the petty thieving itself.
Game played by the greedy
Politics is a game played by the greedy. Our democratically-elected governments are the successors to the kings and queens of old. There are no two ways about it. These royal families had grabbed more than their fair share of the common wealth of the societies in which they lived and were determined to hold onto their gains by any means. They surrounded themselves with pomp and splendour, and adopted a regal bearing to intimidate the rest of society into accepting their ascendency.
They could not do this alone, so they recruited two groups of people to their cause: acolytes who managed the day-to-day running of their estates and the men whose strength and greed were equal to their own. This second group of people became the aristocrats, and in order to contain the threat they posed, they were brought inside the tent and rewarded with a share of the spoils. Constant dynastic disputes proved that this solution was imperfect.
Political revolutions, from the 18th century onwards, were intended to overthrow this system but, instead, they merely replaced one greedy group with another. The revolutions in France, Russia and China did little to improve the lot of ordinary people. The masses continued to live without the freedom or the means to enjoy life in the way that was open to those who grabbed the reins of power. In France and Russia, it took time for the new ruling group to consolidate its power, while competition between its members descended into a paranoid battle. They acted viciously against their enemies, mostly erstwhile compatriots, in a manner which even out-rivalled the dynastic battles of European monarchies. As ever, ordinary people were caught in the crossfire.
Two exceptions stand out: the successful rise of representative democracy after the American revolution and the emergence of constitutional monarchies in Europe. These developments have done more than anything else to ameliorate the contest between men who see political success as a method of satisfying their greed for both power and money. However, the framing of the American Constitution explicitly acknowledged that the abuse of power was an inevitability and great efforts were made to incorporate a system of checks and balances to limit the opportunities for abuse. These efforts have failed, showing that democracy – as currently constituted – has some glaring weaknesses which threaten to unravel the progress made.
Democracy – and its handmaiden capitalism – has shown itself to be the high-road to happiness and freedom for a larger part of the population than any other system yet devised. It is therefore essential to improve the political infrastructure so that democracy can work better. It is essential that its control over those in power is improved. James Madison, one of America's Founding Fathers wrote: "In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself." This second obligation has been outrageously circumvented.
Shadow over capitalism
The current financial crisis has a cast a shadow over the capitalist system. But in addressing the failures which have come to light, we must not forget that the magic of capitalism has shared the good life among far more people than any other economic system, (even in China where the power of capitalism is nurtured by a government so far unwilling to embrace democracy) . The strength of capitalism is the way it harnesses the ingenuity of the smartest to create wealth and the fact that it cannot function without universal participation. No-one can be left out of the process. Workers' wages fuel the demand for goods; the demand for goods drives the whole system. The mantra "greed is good" was a back-handed compliment to the importance of the driving force of capitalism. It functions by channelling the self-interest of everyone involved.
Monopoly is the enemy of the proper function of capitalism. But there is a paradox here for monopoly is the ideal situation for a capitalist. It provides a route to unimaginable wealth but, at the same time, it strangles the system.
We are accustomed to the idea that monopolistic capitalists earn excess profits. But other groups enjoy the fruits of monopoly too. Through the 1960s and 70s, trade union members in the nationalised industries captured the monopoly profits earned by these industries. They took these benefits partly in wages, but they also abused their power through working practices that reduced productivity and allowed them to work less hard than employees in industries subject to competition. When there are no owners to collect monopoly profits and spend them on luxurious lifestyles, the profits drain away through Spanish practices that are characteristic of bureaucracies which grow like cancers.
Government organisations are notoriously inefficient. There is no competition to generate improved quality of service or value for money. Their administrations exploit their monopoly position to build empires while their titular political masters make vain (and largely disingenuous) attempts to institute cost savings. Uncontrolled monopolies stifle wealth creation – as proved by the way state monopoly in the Soviet Union strangled the system altogether.
Today it is the banks that have become too big to fail. As a result they are holding us all to ransom: we must hand over money to rescue them or the savings we have left will disappear with them. And there is no effective control on what they can pay their bosses or their employees – or on what they do next. This is a classic example of the exploitation of monopoly.
Stock in trade of politicians
So what is the link with politics? It is because monopoly is the stock in trade of politicians who, when in government, exercise a monopoly on coercion – including financial coercion. There is no escape from the obligation to pay taxes or to obey the law. But politicians also control all types of monopoly, some of which the government runs itself and others which it regulates. Many private monopolies are tolerated within a regulatory regime because, properly regulated, they offer advantages to society.
Because there is a permanent risk that monopolies will be abused, regulation by government on behalf of the population is essential. But in fulfilling this role, politicians are constantly approached by interested parties who want to influence the manner in which regulation is conducted. So at last we see why politics is so attractive to those with a weak moral compass. They are attracted by positions which give them power and which offer opportunities to make loads of money.
Have you ever wondered why wealthy businesses and other interest groups are so keen to provide financial support to political parties? This is why. Have you ever wondered how successful politicians end up far richer than their salaries would allow them to become? This is how. Have you ever wondered why politicians end up being offered attractive sinecures in big companies? This is why.
Accepted corrupt practices
Top politicians differ from the rank-and-file MPs whose money-grabbing antics have recently been exposed. They are more clever at covering their tracks. Even so, in some countries (even some in the European Union), only the flimsiest of excuses are required because people accept corruption as an inevitability. In some other parts of the world, ordinary people are so intimidated by politicians that corruption is blatant. But we should not be misled; corruption exists everywhere. It is just that, in the most democratic countries, its operation is subtle and – usually – invisible.
The map produced by Transparency International shows the spread of corruption. (the darker the colour the more corrupt). click on map to enlarge
Rules are made or operated in such a way that the well-connected pay (proportionately) less tax. The system ensures that the smarter operators always end up at the top of the heap. Tax rules are complicated – they are designed to be difficult to understand because it is easier to hide the loopholes, to throw dust in the air to obscure what is really going on. Again James Madison foresaw the problem: "It will be of little avail to the people that the laws are made by men of their own choice if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood".
Greedy people do not like to be caught raiding the larder. The smart ones never do. So let us be forever grateful to the stupid ones who have been caught with chocolate on their faces. They remind us of an important truth: much bigger raids are made on the cookie jar every day.
The American founding fathers were explicit in identifying the danger. They attempted to head it off. They failed. In opting for a representative democracy where political parties offer a fast track for greedy people to rise to the top, a massive loophole has been left in the system. Instead of providing an automatic system for the limitation of potential abuse, party patronage means that parliamentarians – who should be looking out for the public interest – are dependent on the main potential abusers for their advancement. This is true wherever political parties are predominant.
Better politicians to do a better job
Democracy has been dealt a series of body blows. The failure of the regulatory systems has allowed ordinary people to lose money while those running the financial sector are bailed out, paid off and allowed to get on with their lives. Huge quantities of public money were stolen by private operators employed by the American government after the invasion of Iraq. Blatant changes were made in the laws of Italy which allow top politicians to be protected from prosecution. Many British MPs have been caught fiddling the system.
It is time to design the next great step in creating a fairer world. We need to strengthen the political process to enable better politicians to do a better job. We have come a long way, as shown by the vast numbers of people in China, India and SE Asia who are now released from poverty. It is time to move forward.