Public corruption is not the norm in American government, but it's hardly unusual either. The Justice Department's Public Integrity section reports annually on prosecutions of federal, state, and local officials. Page through the document and discover a rogue's gallery of cheaters, thieves, swindlers, and rats. In 2009 alone, Jack Abramoff and 13 of his associates (including one former member of Congress) pleaded guilty to "honest services fraud" and related offenses. The former office manager for Sen. Edward Kennedy was indicted on charges of padding his salary to the tune of $75,000 and submitting false records to successive chiefs of staff. A parade of military members and contractors apparently helped themselves to funds meant for the Iraq Coalition Provisional Authority. And at the state level, four members of the Alaska House of Representatives were indicted, a judge in New York was convicted of extortion and seeking a bribe, and so on.
Besides prosecuting and shaming them, how can we combat the sticky fingers of our elected officials? "The more corrupt the state, the more the laws," advised Tacitus. As a corollary, the more money they have to spend, the more opportunities for mischief we afford them. Even when they're spending money honestly, most of it is wasted in government. How much of the trillion-dollar stimulus helped to create jobs? How well has Head Start, the marquee liberal program, helped low-income kids? According to a recent HHS analysis, not at all.
As we head to the polls, it's a good time to recall the wisdom of Milton Friedman. "There are four ways in which you can spend money. You can spend your own money on yourself. When you do that, why then you really watch out what you're doing, and you try to get the most for your money. Then you can spend your own money on somebody else. For example, I buy a birthday present for someone. Well, then I'm not so careful about the content of the present, but I'm very careful about the cost. Then, I can spend somebody else's money on myself. And if I spend somebody else's money on myself, then I'm sure going to have a good lunch! Finally, I can spend somebody else's money on somebody else. And if I spend somebody else's money on somebody else, I'm not concerned about how much it is, and I'm not concerned about what I get. And that's government."