Big Government’s Corruption Is All Around You

(REUTERS/Robert Galbraith)

W. James Antle III Managing Editor
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Ever get the feeling that everyone’s hand is in your pocket? Jay Cost says you’re right.

The Weekly Standard writer’s fascinating new book “A Republic No More: Big Government and the Rise of American Political Corruption” shows how this includes the richest and most powerful — especially the people you send to Washington.

In the second part of his interview with The Daily Caller, Cost explains how this money-grubbing dominates our politics today. (RELATED: When Special Interests Ate The Constitution)

Agriculture shrinks as a percentage of the workforce, but farm subsidies seldom do. Why is that?

Farm subsidies advocates were very smart. As their electoral clout declined — and not just because of shrinkage in the farm workforce but also the Warren court mandates of one-man-one-vote, which drastically shifted representational power from the countryside to the cities — they started looking around for allies.

The idea was to expand the scope of the farm subsidy program to ensnare evermore groups. So, it is not just wheat or corn or sugar subsidies now. It is also clean energy. It is healthy eating programs. It is exports. It is food stamps.

The idea is that most of those programs would fail on their own, but when they are lumped into a single bill they attract a critical mass of legislators that make the omnibus law unstoppable.

Progressives like to associate themselves with “good government.” Are they right?

Depends on the progressive we’re talking about! Throughout the book I was mightily impressed by Ralph Nader. I disagree with him a lot, but I think he is a true advocate of the public interest, consequences be damned. Other progressives, not so much. Elizabeth Warren may talk a good game about the people versus the powerful, but Dodd-Frank embeds too-big-to-fail in our system — so that to me is rhetoric over reality. And she showed her hand to me when she came out in favor of the Export-Import Bank.

More broadly, I do think there is something inherent to progressivism that holds them back, despite their (often wild) gesticulations in favor of good government.

Progressivism was not radicalism when it was first developed. It was actually a middle ground between “conservatism” (in scare quotes because a conservative in 1909 is very different than a conservative today) and radical alternatives like the populism or socialism.

The latter were really looking for a fundamental re-write of the basic rules of the game, and were winning over a sizeable share of the public. William Jennings Bryan, the fiery populist crusader, called for socializing the railroads in 1907. The next year he won the nomination of the Democratic Party and captured 43 percent of the vote!

Four years later Eugene Debs, a bona fide socialist, won 6 percent of the presidential vote, with particular strength out West. So the radical left was really on the rise about 100 years ago — and this was very worrisome.

The progressives wanted to find a way to protect the status quo from these radicals, and they hit upon the idea of a grand bargain. All parties should come to the table of government — business, labor, consumers — and the progressives who ran the meeting would find a solution that would make all sides happy.

You can really see this methodology when you look at Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt. All three believed that a strong president combined with a disinterested bureaucracy pursuing “scientific” principles of administration could balance these different factions, and satisfy all comers.

To some extent this is quite Madisonian. Taken together, Federalist #10 and #51 basically point to the idea of a balance between the forces in society. The problem is that the institutions of our government as originally designed are not capable of creating the kind of balance the progressives want.

Progressives aspire to create balance in the distribution of social welfare, in industrial regulation, in farm income, in economic growth, and so on — all these are powers that the Framers, when they designed the institutions of government, did not really envision. So, the progressives are trying to balance something that refuses to be balanced.

In particular, the presidency is not nearly as powerful as they hoped, and the bureaucracy created a whole new set of arguably worse problems.

Now maybe in theory a very skilled progressive politician could make that grand bargain happen, but in practice I’ve never seen anybody do that, or even come close.

The most skillful pol the progressive left ever produced was FDR, whose First New Deal was the ultimate in progressive legislation. And it was enormously unfair in how it favored entrenched, wealthy interests over the common good.

I would say that many other milestones of progressive legislation — the Fair Labor Standards Act, Social Security, Medicare, Obamacare — all had the same problem, to varying degrees. In its zeal to create a more equal playing field, the progressive left often looks the other way as well-positioned factions embed their interests in legislation.

Corruption is obviously a bipartisan phenomenon. What is the most corrupt act you associate with each party?

When I think of Republicans, I think of farm subsidies. When I think of Democrats, I think of affordable housing. Both sides play dirty with both policies — it is the hypocrisy that gets me.

Start with the Republicans. Farm subsidies are just plain wasteful. They are essentially a transfer of wealth from relatively poor non-farmers to relatively rich farmers, and they have been badly designed since Day One.

While FDR and the New Deal Democrats instituted them, it was conservative Republicans who balked when Dwight Eisenhower tried to unwind them in the 1950s.

Moreover, for all the complaining that Republicans do about food stamps, it is their insistence on farm subsidies that facilitates the food stamp program! Food stamps and farm subsidies are linked together in the same bill — part of that massive logroll I mentioned earlier.

But more than this, farm subsidies increase the cost of food, thereby pricing low-income people out of the food market and making them dependent upon government subsidies. So, next time you hear a conservative Republican in Congress bitch about food stamps, ask him: did you vote against the farm bill?

What about the Democrats? They have an elaborate narrative about the 2008 financial panic, which gets down to an absence of good prudential regulation. They claim that it was unchecked greed combined with the Republican party’s nihilistic commitment to laissez faire that ruined us.

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were an integral part of that collapse, and the two mortgage giants captured their regulators thanks in large measure to assistance from Democratic politicians.

Now, just as with farm subsidies, the other party (in this case the GOP) facilitated the problem. But the point is that the Democrats are hypocrites on this matter. Well-positioned Democrats did everything and anything they could to make sure that the regulator of Fannie and Freddie was extremely weak, and then after the collapse complained that nobody was regulating the big financial firms.

Did the earmark ban do anything to solve the problem of pork?

Unfortunately, the earmark ban has not actually banned earmarks. Citizens Against Government Waste reports that billions are still being spent via earmarks. Only now, they are harder to track down. With earmarks nominally “banned” the reporting requirements are moot, so the earmarks that sneak through are tougher to spot. Beyond that, earmarks are just one way of distributing pork. There are many other ways.

Still, I think the earmark ban was a step in the right direction. The question is: will it be sustained for the long haul? Congressional Republicans are very good at passing splashy reform policies — that are slowly unwound over time. That happened with farm subsidies and Medicare spending — both reformed in the mid-1990s then undone over the next decade. It is a big question mark whether the ban will hold in place.

Is crony capitalism now a feature rather than a bug of modern American liberalism?

It is a feature of our system. It is the primary means by which incumbent politicians fund their reelection campaigns: give me money for reelection and I will look after your interests on my committee. This approach captures a wide variety of transactions within government — and crony capitalism is one such transaction.

To appreciate how embedded this is, imagine the same scenario for federal judges. Suppose you were a judge and I am the CEO of a Fortune 500 company with business before your court. I write you a $5,000 check. I hire your son to work for me. I hint not-so-subtly that you can have a job working for me when you leave public life.

If this became known, you’d be disbarred and my company’s reputation would be enormously damaged. Now, what if you are the chairman of a House subcommittee with oversight over my industry, and I offered you all those things? Far from being humiliated, we probably would be emulated because we have mastered “the way things work.”

What is the main thing you want people to learn from “A Republic No More?”

I am personally outraged by the way things are now. I think back to what Lincoln Steffens — the famous muckraker — wrote about Phildelphia in the early 1900s: “corrupt and contented.” He argued that Philadelphians were unique in that they were as corrupt as anybody, but they did not seem particularly upset about it. They were happy with the crooked way things were.

I think our political class is corrupt and contented, and they want the rest of us to think that this is just the way things are supposed to be. But that is not true! The status quo — of corruption, corporate welfare, cronyism, pay-to-play, etc. — may seem inevitable to us because the current system predates the start of our collective memory. But things were not always this way, and previous generations did not idly accept corruption — even when it was half as bad as what we today tacitly endorse.

Corruption today permeates almost every aspect of government because it has become embedded in the institutions themselves. But those institutions can be changed — and they have been before. We can do it again. But to do so, we have to understand the nature of the problem. It is not the personalities who temporarily occupy the positions of power. It is the rules of the game that govern their behavior. That is what we need to change.

And for conservatives in particular, I would caution against focusing so relentlessly on the 2016 presidential campaign, fussing over every dot and tittle. “Rubio said this!” “Walker did that!” “OMG can you believe Jeb?!” That is really missing the forest for the trees — getting hung up on the personalities rather than the rules that govern their behavior. I think our time would be better spent focusing on Congress — which is after all Article I, so it was the top priority of the Framer’s — and looking at ways we can make Congress behave more responsibly by pressuring the legislature to reform its rules.

W. James Antle III is managing editor of The Daily Caller and author of the book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped? Follow him on Twitter.