Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Washington's Corruption of the Very Idea of Governance

Thomas Frank, writing at TomDispatch, discusses the tendency to "bad apple" (as a verb, which should become au courant) corruption in Washington. The bad apple Jack Abramoff accepts the rap for what is basically organized crime. It's interesting how similar this is to the torture cases at Abu Ghraib, in which systemic, institutional torture comes pre-packaged with its scapegoats or "bad apples" too dumb to defend their own morally indefensible actions.

Those of us who live in this city know full well that the city is full of corruption (being careful to distinguish DC as a city of real residents and DC as a city of governmental interlopers, political operatives, politically inbred media stars, lobbyists, and assorted hangers-on living off of or seeking the generous hand of the party-driven government). But we've also seen the corruption accelerate over the past eight years. It is distinct, this acceleration, and it has filtered through nearly every aspect of the federal government and its scions. Apart from the vast corruption embodied in the current administration and many of its policies, and the even larger sphere of corruption which is the ongoing relationship between private money and public policy in Washington, everyone connected to the federal government in some way or another has their stories of censorship or ideological favoritism or graft or other cozy, obsequious relationships between incompetent federal officials and the centers of political influence and power.

Frank suggests that this acceleration of corruption over the past several years was basically preordained.
...Fantastic misgovernment of the kind we have seen is not an accident, nor is it the work of a few bad individuals. It is the consequence of triumph by a particular philosophy of government, by a movement that understands the liberal state as a perversion and considers the market the ideal nexus of human society. This movement is friendly to industry not just by force of campaign contributions but by conviction; it believes in entrepreneurship not merely in commerce but in politics; and the inevitable results of its ascendance are, first, the capture of the state by business and, second, all that follows: incompetence, graft, and all the other wretched flotsam that we've come to expect from Washington.

The correct diagnosis is the "bad apple" thesis turned upside down. There are plenty of good conservative individuals, honorable folks who would never participate in the sort of corruption we have watched unfold over the last few years. Hang around with grassroots conservative voters in Kansas, and in the main you will find them to be honest, hardworking people. Even our story's worst villains can be personally virtuous. Jack Abramoff, for example, is known to his friends as a pious, polite, and generous fellow.

But put conservatism in charge of the state, and it behaves very differently. Now the "values" that rightist politicians eulogize on the stump disappear, and in their place we can discern an entirely different set of priorities -- priorities that reveal more about the unchanging historical essence of American conservatism than do its fleeting campaigns against gay marriage or secular humanism. The conservatism that speaks to us through its actions in Washington is institutionally opposed to those baseline good intentions we learned about in elementary school.

Its leaders laugh off the idea of the public interest as airy-fairy nonsense; they caution against bringing top-notch talent into government service; they declare war on public workers. They have made a cult of outsourcing and privatizing, they have wrecked established federal operations because they disagree with them, and they have deliberately piled up an Everest of debt in order to force the government into crisis. The ruination they have wrought has been thorough; it has been a professional job. Repairing it will require years of political action.

There's an opportunity in this of the kind the traditionally conservative Obama-con Andrew Sullivan has espoused for the past several years, and many working in civic politics and political theory have been saying for eons. That is, it's necessary to conceive of government as capable of operating in the interests of the public good, decided democratically, before government can actually progress towards that ideal. Skeptics (and cynics) of government in itself are corrosive of the possibility of good governance, which is necessary, the fantastic claims of some poorly-read anarchists, Ayn Randers, and libertarians notwithstanding. The ideology-driven skeptics/cynics are in power, they've convinced much of the public that government is in itself fundamentally corrupt rather than their actual governance, and as such have enabled themselves to be accepted by the public, when caught, as "bad apples" while their corrupt institutional practices go on unimpeded. This is partially why public perception does matter. Government leaders who can overtly demonstrate not only decent governance but the concrete importance of principles of transparency, democracy, and accountability can go a long way towards helping the public reconceive of governance as a public good. And that is a necessary condition of truly getting anything done in the way of good policy.


Anonymous said...

I'm not sure I'd call this "Washington's Corruption of the Very Idea of Government." I think I'd replace the first word with Conservatives'.

I have a hard time understanding the motivation for destroying government. It seems to me that it ultimately lands us all back in the Hobbesian struggle of all against all.

Maybe conservatives think they would win in that struggle.

MT said...

You mentioned the poorly-read anarchists, Ayn Randers and libertarians, but I'm not sure that encompasses absolutely all teenagers.