Legal bribery

Politicians making money

As Steven M. Davidoff, a professor at the Michael E. Moritz College of Law at The Ohio State University, reminds his readers, legal bribery is endemic to elections-based systems (admittedly, he probably would not phrase it this way).

Of course, this arrangement in which retired (or on-leave) politicians are awarded large sums of money by private interests is very convenient to both politicians and powerful private interests. This fact makes it unlikely that this phenomenon would be addressed effectively in a system dominated by the interests of those groups, despite the obvious conflicts of interests involved and the despite the equivalence for-all-intents-and-purposes of the activities involved to acts of illegal bribery.

Ideologically, as well, electoralism makes it natural for politicians to claim that their monetary rewards are justified. Just like manufacturers who manage to sell their products to a large number of people and can claim that the popularity of their products is an indication of their high quality, successful politicians can claim that the fact that the were elected is evidence of their high qualifications. It is only fair, then, according to the rules of the free market, that they are rewarded handsomely for providing their skills, once they are not in office, to private employers. Any mechanisms aiming to limit the ability of former politicians to sell their skills would not only be unfair to those politicians but would also be a disincentive for highly skilled individuals to entering politics and using those skills in the public interest. Prof. Davidoff sums up this outlook in the last paragraph of his article:

I can’t begrudge politicians making money after years of relatively low-paid public service.

A remedy

In fact, the political powers are so well-aligned in support of legal bribery that no effective discussion of this problem exists in the pubic arena. Complaints about the “revolving door” (constant exchange of personnel between public and corporate positions) are usually framed in terms of the problems of former politicians using their connections to impact policy after they leave office, or of former corporate officers using their new political positions to influence policy in favor of their previous (and future) employer. Both of those problems are not insignificant but they are minor compared to the outright bribery that takes place when private interests pay huge sums to former politicians, and both of those problems are to some limited extent addressed by a few years’ waiting period when transitioning between public and certain types of private employment, while such rules are essentially useless for addressing the matter of bribery.

Of course, an effective mechanism for curbing legal bribery can be conceived. A straightforward approach would involve setting up a permanent body with the power to regulate and scrutinize contact between former politicians and private interests. Former politicians would be required to report all their income to the regulating body. The body would decide whether any cases of excessive compensation occurred, excesses that could constitute payback for favorable treatment by the politician while in office. The body would be authorized to appropriate funds and levy fines in such situations. As is the case with other anti-corruption functions where potential conflicts-of-interest of elected officials need to be addressed, selecting such a body by sortition seems like the best way to minimize the possibility that it becomes part of the corrupt system or becomes a political tool by elites.

An item on the pro-sortition agenda

The creation of a powerful allotted body in charge of setting ethical guidelines for elected officials and enforcing them – a purview encompassing among other roles fighting (what is today) legal bribery – may be a good item to put on the pro-sortition agenda. (It is important to have the body carry out the judiciary proceedings for enforcing the rules in addition to setting them in order to give the body real power and in order to keep its agenda substantive enough to justify the full attention of the delegates.) With the body holding power only over government officials, the natural apprehensions the public might have about the unfamiliar selection mechanism will be minimized. Elected officials themselves would find it inconvenient to oppose such a proposal because their opposition could suggest that they are engaged in corrupt activities themselves.

With the bar of current achievements of anti-corruption efforts being set at essentially non-existent, it would be easy for the body to prove itself useful and so provide a positive example of what can be achieved if the use of sortition is extended to selecting other bodies.


One Response

  1. […] the bulk of the material rewards of high political office is not in the form of the officials’ pay, the salaries, allowances and benefits of the typical national legislator are quite generous. The […]


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