By the time you read this, you may know if the scandal surrounding the lobbyist Jack Abramoff is going to be just another in the long line of stories about a corrupt politician or two taking bribes, or a blockbuster story that results in the indictments of dozens of big-name politicians and the collapse of the Republican majority in Congress. It could be the latter.
There were hints on the Sunday talk shows that something momentous is in the wind. Cokie Roberts and Pat Buchanan gave the impression that they knew more than they were prepared to say about the big names that will go down when Abramoff spills the beans in an attempt to cut his jail time. It could be that Duke Cunningham, the GOP congressman from California who is on his way to jail for taking bribes from lobbyists, will have some company.
The Republicans are trying to make the best of the situation. John McCain and George Will are making the case that these problems have arisen because Republicans forgot that they came to power to cut government spending. McCain told reporters that “the best answer to corruption is smaller government.” Abramoff is on the record: “More money available from government is blood in the water for sharks.”
Chris Demuth, President of the American Enterprise Institute, makes the same point as McCain. He argues that the Republicans succumbed to the lure of big money once they became the majority in Congress: “The 2001-2005 period marks the transformation of the Republican party from its traditional role as a win-or-lose guardian of limited government to that of majority government party just as comfortable with big government as the Democrats, only with different spending priorities.” That makes sense. If Washington no longer has billions of dollars to distribute, there will be less blood to attract the sharks.
This is where the social encyclicals come into play, especially the principle of subsidiarity. The case could be made that the exploitation of the concentration of power and money in Washington by lobbyists such as Abramoff is one of the things that Pius XI warned about when he taught in Quadragesimo Anno that “just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do.”
The National Conference of Catholic Bishops, in their 1986 pastoral letter Economic Justice for All, sought to make this concept clearer for a modern audience:
The primary norm for determining the scope and limits of governmental intervention is the principle of subsidiarity. This principle states that, in order to protect basic justice, government should undertake only those initiatives which exceed the capacities of individuals or private groups acting independently. Government should not replace or destroy smaller communities and individual initiative. Rather it should help them contribute more effectively to social well-being and supplement their activity only when the demands of justice exceed their capacities.
It is hard to argue with that. If civic groups and private charities and state and local governments were in charge of dealing with the societal needs now handled by Washington politicians and bureaucrats, men like Jack Abramoff would have a much harder time focusing on whom to bribe.
Or would they? I don’t think so. Whatever else you want to say about these Washington con artists, they are resourceful. I submit that they know how to find the mayor’s office and the state house, the union hall and the director’s office at a private charity, any place where big money is being spent for our societal needs, as easily as they found their way to Duke Cunningham’s office.
I am not taking issue with the principle of subsidiarity. We should assign to government only those responsibilities that cannot be handled in the private sector, and the federal government should handle only those tasks that cannot be dealt with by state and local governments. But a principle, even one taught by the Church, must be put into practice by human beings. The proposition that smaller government is the way to escape corruption should be evaluated in the light of T.S. Eliot’s observation about how modern man goes about “trying to escape the darkness without and within” by “dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.”
I have lived in three different states in the last ten years. In every community where I have lived, I have heard stories in the saloons, barber shops and diners about the local pols and union leaders on the take, the school board presidents who direct construction projects to their buddies, the ex-mayors who got rich on the sale of the properties they acquired and sold “at just the right time,” wink, wink. As I write, my local newspaper here in Connecticut is running a story on its front page about employees of the state Department of Transportation charged with taking bribes to make one paving company the sole contractor for the cold sealing of cracks on Connecticut’s highways between 1997 and 2004.
We all remember from the Clinton years the stories about the Arkansas deal-makers at the Rose Law Firm. There are people like them who make their living through their “connections” in every hamlet in the country. The only difference between them and Jack Abramoff is that they make less money and I’m not sure about that: The local con artists have less overhead than their K-Street counterparts.
The Jack Abramoffs of the world would not close up shop if the scales of government spending were tipped away from Washington toward state and local governments. They would be greasing the palms of governors and mayors instead of ambitious congressmen, and with less chance of getting caught. At least when they are concentrated on K Street, it keeps them high-profile and potential targets of investigative reporters and opposition party activists. In the one-party local governments that are typical around the country, such scrutiny is less likely to occur. Few people had ever heard of the Rose Law Firm until Bill and Hillary moved to Washington.
Small government is usually preferable to big. The social encyclicals have it right. But the sharks will still be in the water. Political reforms will have little effect in a society that lives by the codes of moral relativism. Without an accompanying societal spiritual rejuvenation, political reforms can accomplish little beyond setting up a new set of situations for the wheelers and dealers to exploit. The process of government is not the source of corruption. It is rooted in the soul. Adam and Eve ate the apple.
(This article originally appeared in The Wanderer and is reprinted with permission. To subscribe call 651-224-5733.)