“When a private citizen is robbed a worthy man is deprived of the fruits of his industry and thrift; when the government is robbed the worst that happens is that certain rogues and loafers have less money to play with than they had before.” 

H.L. Mencken, from “Mencken Chrestomathy” 

The recent public fights and apologies over proposed reforms to Alabama’s ethics laws have jogged personal memories of watching past public corruption fights, reminding me of how lonely I feel when it comes to political corruption.  

Am I the only one who finds the never-ending, feckless fussing over corruption in politics to be an utter waste of the public’s time, money, and energy?  

Whenever I watch public corruption melodramas play out too closely, I end up feeling dirty and debased, like I’ve been kept in the dark and forced to watch events unfold through a small hole in the wall, occasionally catching a glimpse of the political elite playing with themselves.  

Alabama’s public corruption fights always feel more like a circus of onanism for political insiders – a perverse parade for lawyers, lobbyists, politicians, media personalities, political junkies, and social climbers – than liberty and justice for all.  

Though I know many well-intended souls who care deeply about fighting political corruption in the state, I cannot share their zeal (or perhaps, they cannot share mine). As much as I try, the best I can do is wish these reformers well, while warning them not to let their good intentions lead them astray. Remember friends, corruption is always the cost of playing politics. 

I suspect the delta between the reformers and me is that they still believe in their public institutions, whereas I believe such institutions have always been alien to me, do not speak for me, are generally hostile to my liberty, and do not deserve to exist at my coerced expense.  

It’s not that I think corruption, public or private, is a good thing. Far from it. Sin is sin is sin. I just assume the government I am forced to live under is inevitably corrupt and even swifter to claim its corruption necessary to prevent worse forms of corruption. “Many are quite clever,” says the government, “so I’ll deem all others’ cleverness a criminal sin.” 

Governments are only ever ethical in relative terms, e.g. the government of Gondor may be more ethical than the government of Mordor but that doesn’t necessarily mean Gondor is ethical or free. All forms of government – being reflections of man’s vain competition for power, status, and advantage over his fellow man – are fundamentally an exercise in predation, force, and fraud.  

The predation need not be conscious. No matter how good intentions may be, government corruption will find a way. Even the most legitimate and lawful government will serve as a corrupting influence.  

Why? Because the government's lawful and legitimate powers are always an exception to the ethical rules the rest of us are called to follow.  

For example, consider a fairly universal ethic: the Golden Rule. “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets,” Jesus says in the Gospel of Matthew.  

Sums up the Law and the Prophets indeed. China’s Confucius had a version of this rule. Greece’s Epicurus had his own version too. I’ve always been partial to Hillel the Elder’s formulation, especially the rabbi’s emphasis on the negative, “Do not do unto others that which you hate done unto yourself.” 

Yet, the government remains the one institution that is allowed an exception to the Golden Rule. The government is allowed to do “that which you hate.”  

Government, so the theory goes, must be allowed to transcend the rules itself to uphold the rules for everyone else. Even the best governments sustain themselves by predatory actions that would never be allowed by any other institution or individual. Thus, even the use of legitimate government power can be corrupting. When the government's exception to normal ethical constraints becomes an everyday, well-worn tool to manage society and enrich competing interests, such a trend will prove destructive and deleterious in a familiar, friendly, and subtle way. If you want to trick good people into doing wicked things with a yawn and a shrug, have them serve an ever-expanding government. Government, at best, recognizes man’s corrupt nature, allowing the corrupt interests of men to check and balance other men’s corrupt interests – without anyone being allowed to pretend their interest is in the public interest. The problem with most ethics reforms is that they do not go far enough. 

That said, the best anti-corruption measure the public could adopt would be to abolish as much of the government as swiftly as possible, limiting the powers of the law to the most basic elements of justice,  i.e. the protection of persons and property.  

I do not expect such an abolition to come to pass anytime soon, especially not in Alabama. In fact, I suspect I am destined to share the same fate as Mr. Mencken when he said:  

The ideal government of all reflective men, from Aristotle onward, is one which lets the individual alone—one which barely escapes being no government at all. This ideal, I believe, will be realized in the world twenty or thirty centuries after I have passed from these scenes and taken up my public duties in Hell.

Joey Clark is a native Alabamian and is currently the host of the radio program News and Views on News Talk 93.1 FM WACV out of Montgomery, AL M-F 12 p.m. - 3 p.m. His column appears every Tuesday in 1819 News. To contact Joey for media or speaking appearances as well as any feedback, please email joeyclarklive@gmail.com. Follow him on X @TheJoeyClark or watch the radio show livestream.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of 1819 News. To comment, please send an email with your name and contact information to Commentary@1819news.com

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