Acton Commentary

Ancient Wisdom for an Old Problem


Congressional reform is all the rage in Washington these days. Senators Trent Lott and Dianne Feinstein introduced one reform bill; Senator John McCain another. The race for House Majority leader (to replace corruption-tainted Tom DeLay) was a referendum on who could most effectively--or rather most effectively appear--to combat corruption and thereby refurbish House Republicans' image as reform-minded, Mr.Smith-goes-to-Washington types.

The Jack Abramoff scandal was the immediate impetus for this reform hubbub. A contributing factor was the publicity attending some of the more outrageous pork projects approved over the last several years. Leaving aside the question of what qualifies as corruption and what doesn't--some of the “scandals” that have made the splashiest headlines are less pernicious than other, less sensational abuses--the general sense is that corruption is at an historic zenith and it's high time somebody did something about it.

It's hard to compare how bad corruption in Washington is today versus, say, a hundred years ago. Quantifying activities that are by their nature secretive is tough. But even a cursory look at history helps to put the current crisis in perspective and makes one doubt that the situation now is much--if at all--worse than at any other time.

The Warren Harding administration (1921-1923) probably takes honors as the one with the ugliest reputation. Poor Harding may not have had anything to do with it, but his Interior Secretary secretly sold rights to an oil deposit that had been set aside as a naval reserve. Harding's legacy has been haunted ever after by the affair at Teapot Dome.

The Ulysses Grant administration (1869-1877) comes in a close second. (It might rival Harding's for first if it weren't for the accidental but fortunate circumstance of its occurring longer ago, and therefore being less well remembered.) Again, Grant appears to have been innocent, if naïve, but many high-ranking Republicans were implicated in an unseemly deal involving a construction company, Crédit Mobilier, and the Union Pacific Railroad.

Andrew Jackson's tenure (1829-1837) saw bitter debate over the emerging “spoils system,” whereby government posts were seen as favors to be bestowed on personal friends or others who were owed recompense.

Corruption is hardly uniquely American or modern. In Herodotus's account (fifth century B.C), King Darius of Persia's argument against democracy displayed antiquity's experience with government. “When the people rules,” he observed, “it is impossible that corruption should not arise.”

Legislative efforts to curb such activity should not be discounted entirely. The 1883 civil service act was a worthy reform of the spoils system. But law will only go part of the way toward a solution. Washington politicians and lobbyists are crafty enough to get around laws, however well conceived.

Instead, the effort to stem corruption should concentrate on two fronts. One is limiting government. Circumscribing the powers of government diminishes the potential to use those powers for self-aggrandizement. The ever-expanding reach of Congress justified on the basis of the Constitution's interstate commerce clause has provided ever-expanding opportunities for corporations and other interests to procure benefits from government.

The second focus should be on the demands of morality. The temptation to use the levers of government for personal gain will always exist, no matter how much legislation is enacted or how limited the executive's or the legislature's purview is. And temptation--an inducement to sin--is exactly what it is. It can only be resisted through a commitment to the moral responsibilities incumbent on a public official.

Isidore of Seville wrote in his seventh-century Etymologies : “Law should be framed, not for any private benefit, but for the common good of all the citizens.” Thomas Aquinas cited the passage in his treatment of law 600 years later. In the classical-Christian tradition extending from Aristotle to Aquinas and beyond, a magistrate who favors a private party at public expense commits the vice of injustice.

Some might say that contemporary problems require more contemporary solutions. Centuries-old arguments are antiquated and unrealistic. To the contrary: the disease of government corruption is ancient and its antidote, though elusive, has long been known. Addressing it adequately requires not so much innovative lawmaking as renewed dedication to the venerable principles of limited government and moral restraint.