Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Corruption and Government

I saw on the South Jerusalem blog today an explanation of the culture of corruption in Israel, which really does reach an astonishing level. The writer, Gershom Gorenberg, points out that this comes from the culture of illegality at the beginning of the settlement project, when evading the laws of the British Mandatory government made you a hero, and before that from the European ghetto, in which life was about getting around the laws of the oppressor. Most of all, in the early days, polititcians used to steal on behalf of their party, the instrument of light and truth, and not for themselves.

In like manner, I remember someone making the point that African corruption arose from the sense that the colonial state was an invader, and the thing to do was to steal as much from it as possible for the sake of African people. After independence the attitude to the state never changed, especially since it retained modern Western forms and therefore did not really look African.

My point in all this is the lessons it holds for Americans. We too have a culture of governmental corruption, and it rests on contempt for government. Not just contempt for this or that government, but for the institution of government itself. Government is held incompetent to do anything right.

In fact, however, American government does a lot right. Medicare has always been vastly more efficient than the private medical system, with its 25% cut to insurance companies that serve no purpose but to try to figure out how much they can avoid paying, and how little medical care they can get doctors to provide. Americans have pretty near the most efficient and courteous civil service in the world, and the cheapest and one of the best postal services.

The private sector certainly does some things well. But the profit motive is remarkably inefficient in some ways, because it excludes anything which won't make money. Take a simple example:

Athlete's foot is effectively cured by soaking your feet for about 15 minutes in a weak solution of bleach. It works much better than expensive medicines advertised and sold for the purpose. But no remedy costing about 1.5 cents will ever justify a multimillion dollar ad campaign, and so it will never be advertised. Medical remedies can only be advertised if they're expensive and not very good, so that you have to keep on buying them.

Many other examples might be thought of. It's a fundamental principle of the "free enterprise system," which limits the things it can do well. Certainly those exist, but adding everything up, the general American contempt for government and faith in corporate competence is absurd. Where does this contempt lead us?

1) A fatuous confidence in privatization, even when that makes no sense. For instance, how can anyone justify hiring lawless mercenaries at over three times the pay to do military jobs?

2) Low expectations. Government sometimes does act badly, like all human institutions. But when you take that as normal, then when it happens nothing is done because people are too cynical to think that anything can be.

3) Acceptance of lawlessness and cheating. Here we find common ground with Israeli corruption.The lawless are seen as the only people who can get things done. But what they get done is stupidity like boneheaded imperial wars and the clever machinations of Enron. People who habitually take dishonest shortcuts are really not can-do heroes. They're just street hustlers, three card monte dealers and pimps. Their self-congratulation and the praise of the suckers who admire them is exactly the same thing as the conceit of any street hustler and the adoring worship of his admirers. But if we did not have an ideology of contempt for government, would we accept this as we do?

Nothing works all that well in this world, but in all, Paul was right to claim that the authorities are ordained by God and deserve respect. It doesn't work well when we blow that off. The result is seen around us - "Gangsters in power, and lawbreakers making rules" - with people happy to have it so.

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