Government for Sale
Corruption as multiculturalism
Editor Peggy Boyer Long usually proposed the topics for my Illinois Issues pieces, but this was one of my ideas, I think. It is an axiom of my trade that one tries to make things simple for the reader, which does a disservice to the reader and to the topic. Certainly that's true of bribery. I was, and am, proud of it.
The bribe sits next to hybrid corn and the mail-order catalog on the roster of Prairie State achievements. Illinoisans invented none of them, but Illinois ingenuity helped perfect them. In 1909 William Lorimer and his gang bought off the Illinois Senate to get himself named U.S. senator. The Richard J. Daley years in Chicago offered an ongoing seminar in the techniques of the payoff, with instructors ranging from the cops who would tear up a speeding ticket in return for a twenty to the Daley crony who solicited an astonishing $187,000 bribe from a voting machine manufacturer. Doing business in Chicago was like living in a four-star hotel, so frequently did tavern keepers and restaurateurs encounter the upturned palm; more than 20 Chicago aldermen have been convicted of official corruption in the past 25 years.
Many a disaffected voter has concluded that politics is little more than organized bribery. But is the fix really in? Endemic bribery has left the Mexican police under the control of murderous drug dealers, and helped wreck South Korea's economy; compared to that, bribery in Illinois is picayune. The typical Illinois civil servant in particular is incomparably more honest than she used to be. One reason Springfield finds the MSI case so fascinating is that it offers a glimpse into a past that today seems both romantic and impossibly crude—like visiting New Salem.
Nor is the best test of bribery's effects whether the fat cats get what they want from the politicians. The fat cats of every era usually do. Tax loopholes, lax regulations and corporate welfare date to the beginning of the Republic. To attribute such outcomes to bribery misunderstands that property is the true constituent of the American system of government.
As for campaign cash, politicians insist they don't do anything illegal in return for money. In fact, they often don't do anything at all, at least officially. The tangled skein of contributions and state contracts has been unraveled by industrious reporters, in 1993 by the Springfield State Journal- Register and most recently by the Chicago Tribune. Both papers found that organizations and individuals with interests affected by state government give lots of money to the politicians making decisions—but not once could they show irrefutably that the money actually changed a vote. A close reading of today's bribery scandals confirms that bribery affects only those issues about which the public is indifferent or divided—the arcana of regulatory policy, the tax code or professional practice.
An enormous amount of money changes hands, and inevitably some of it gets dirty, but outside of Chicago Illinoisans do not suffer much from corrupt government. Sure, there is a lot of bad lawmaking going on, but that is not the same as corruption, even if the distinction is sometimes lost on reformers. Illinois pols have many motives besides money to pass lousy laws, not least the earnest desires of their constituents.
Ah, but if the illegal bribe is less routine, legal bribery flourishes, especially among the lawmaking classes. People seeking to skirt the law have learned that it is more efficient to bribe those who make the laws than it is to bribe those who implement them. The popular assumption that campaign donations are merely de facto bribes is too simple, but it is not too too simple.
In the General Assembly there has evolved an etiquette of bribery that is as subtle as any Japanese tea ceremony. Everything is suggested; nothing is said. Tinley Park Mayor Ed Zabrocki, a Republican House member who resigned before his first term was up in 1995, told the Tribune that House minority leader and fund-raiser Lee Daniels never once told him which way to vote on bills. "But when you are beholden to someone and you're looking at the next race and you've got to raise at least $200,000," Zabrocki said, "there certainly is something implied." Here is proof that the professionalized, downsized legislature has attracted a better class of people to Springfield: Honest men and women compromise themselves without the bosses having to do it for them.
Polite opinion still agrees that bribery is bad. It distorts the public decision-making process and wastes money that might be better (or at least more popularly) spent on other things. Bribes are never used to buy what is usually known as better government, unless you count the endorsements by newspapers. Ultimately, bribery remains a form of theft, as public officials sell something—access to public money, access to public power—that doesn't belong to them to sell.
Why, then, does bribery survive, even thrive, when it seems to have so little political effect? The popular answer—that all politicians are crooks—is plainly not accurate. A more complicated answer tells us something more useful: A lot of Illinoisans regard the bribe not as a corruption of upright politics, but merely an alternative to it.
The essence of American life is to be able to buy what you can't earn—a thousand millionaires became respectable that way—and it is as true in politics as in, say, university athletics. Certainly buying influence is central to politics. Other transactions—the campaign promise, the log-rolled vote—are the bribe in essence, superior only in style and subtlety.
No politician understood the political potential of the bribe more astutely than the elder Richard Daley. He died with unstuffed pockets, and thus enjoys a posthumous reputation as an upright citizen among observers who fail to draw careful distinctions between an honest man and a prudent one. In fact, he differed from his colleagues only in preferring to get paid off in votes.
Daley understood that both parties to democratic transactions—public and public official—have something that can tempt the other. By undertaking a public works program that won the support of—and lined the pockets of—banks, developers and big downtown retailers Daley got big business marching to his tune.
Bribery on this scale is dignified in the U.S. system as "interest group politics," and under that name it thrives. Look at the Illinois Education Association. The IEA bribes (perfectly legally) legislative and gubernatorial candidates with cash and workers to buy the former's acquiescence to a school system that provides IEA members with practically permanent jobs at high pay and low standards. If the state's teachers stole millions of dollars in cash, that would be a public offense. If they steal a public school system, we call it public education.
Similarly, it is okay for governors to bribe legislators with promises of bridges in their districts, patronage jobs for the county chairman or photo ops for the re-election campaign. Legislative log-rolling is a form of bribe, too, in which your vote for my bad bill is traded for my vote for your even worse one. In its recent series on the Chicago city council, the Chicago Tribune moaned, "Nearly everything that the aldermen do in the two-hour meeting involves the likelihood of a political payback. It is an orgy of favor- granting, pure and simple." The promise of a citizen's vote in return for a candidate's pledge to vote this way on kitty litter regulation or that way on taxing church picnics is merely a bribe that has been sanctioned by the system. A bribe by any other name—in this case "politics"—smells much sweeter.
Where do we draw the line between politics as bribery and bribery as politics? Between public interest and special interest? Between venality and virtue? Our system assumes that if a majority is in on the payoff, it ain't a bribe, it's good government. But so precisely tailored are most bills to special interests of one kind or another that this test is ever less relevant. As for venality, well, all politics is driven by expectation of rewards that are, ultimately, measurable in dollars. Even symbolic political rewards such as social justice (to choose a very symbolic one indeed) manifest themselves in access to jobs or better housing or safer neighborhoods—all valuable goods for which citizens are willing to trade.
On what basis, then, may the ethically fastidious disapprove of bribery? Philosophers of the boodle argue that consideration of any kind becomes a bribe when it violates distributive justice, which in plainer English means that bribes enable the bribers to get things from government they don't deserve. Makes sense; that is the point of paying the bribe, after all. But who dares call the briber undeserving? Do not bribers take a keener interest in civic affairs than does the average citizen? Do they not at least put their money where their mouths are? Are they, unlike most taxpayers, prepared to actually pay for what they get from government?
Judgment in such cases is not simply a matter of right and wrong. Or rather, it is not a matter of simple right and wrong. Illinoisans, being a clever people, entertain many varieties of right and wrong in addition to those embodied in the law. Notions of civic right and wrong, for example, vary with culture and class. (The etiology of the bribe has been especially well traced by chroniclers of the Chicago Irish.) The practice follows naturally from the individualist's assumptions about citizen and state, just as disapproval of it follows naturally from the equivalent assumptions of the moralist. Each group composes a subculture with its own ethos, its own political agencies—the ward organization for one, for the other Common Cause, which is a kind of ward organization for the educated middle classes whose bumper stickers tend to extol causes rather than candidates. Neither community can outvote the other consistently; neither can convince the other of its rectitude. The result is Northern Ireland without the guns—belligerent and permanent stalemate.
Politics as business is the essence of the individualistic worldview. For example, most lobbyists cover their bets with campaign contributions, donating to both incumbents and challengers in the same races. This is seen by many as the ultimate in cynicism. The average moralist would no more give to both candidates in a race than he would take two wives. He understands government to be about programs, issues, even ideals. To individualists, ideals are the proper province of religion. Government, indeed most relations of citizen to the civic realm, is business, and they deal with it in a businesslike manner. The ledger book, not the civics book, is where they find the rules.
Oversimplifying, the individualist outlook arose out of the circumstances of life in places where the judge, the cop, and the bureaucrat—the pillars of civil society—had not evolved from the lord, the goon and the court functionary. The Irish of Chicago expanded on the individualistic tradition first introduced to Illinois by the anti-English Scots-Irish hill farmers of the Middle South. The experience of both peoples taught them that when the law is not on your side it is essential that the judge is. Bribes keep politics personal for people distrustful or ignorant of distant institutions. They regularize relations. (The bribe is a form of contract that even the unlettered can understand, which meant that trying to cure Chicagoans of corruption was like trying to cure New Yorkers of rudeness.) And they give standing in proceedings to people otherwise on the margins of power.
The tradition endured wherever similar conditions prevailed. The Irish in particular played peasant to the landlords of Chicago's business and social elites in the 1800s, and their already famous talent for the graft took root in fresh soil. To this day, they find it hard to see why one form of influence-seeking is illegal and so many others are not. (Richard J. Daley rose to eloquence only when denouncing the hypocrisy of the goo-goos.) Today, the heirs of that culture may ask for the baksheesh in an unfamiliar accent, but the bribe still comes naturally to the up-and-coming immigrant, the grubbing businessman on the make, the good ol' boy—outcasts all.
Communities that lack the power to make the rules will set about to undermine them. Bribery thus is a tribute of sorts that the powerless pay to the real power. Why then do the powerful seek to bribe? The moralist errs in assuming that greed animates pols, when often it is vanity. Paying a bribe is a way to pay respect. This is seldom credited as part of the ritual. The bribe confers status on givers and takers—the first because they have it to give, the second because they (or at least their power) merit its reward.
The moralist's misunderstanding- owes in part to his different social situation. Paying bribes is redundant to a middle class that believes the world belongs to them. They tend to live in places where they do know the judge, where their social credentials are unchallenged, where there is no need to grease a palm so your kid can jump to the head of the civil service hiring line because she's already there. When in Rome, etc.
The hoo-ha over bribery is thus revealed to be a diversity issue. The fight to stamp out "corrupt" politics in Illinois has been a 150-year exercise in multiculturalism. As is plain from other realms, this doesn't suggest that accommodation will be easy. But it might help to at least know what the problem is. ●
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