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The Perils Of Kleptocracy

Pick a global crisis today, and the odds are good that it either began, or was exacerbated, by a political elite bent on looting the national treasury.

Pick a global crisis today, and the odds are good that it either began, or was exacerbated, by a political elite bent on looting the national treasury.  Vladimir Putin’s man in the Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovich, got bounced for a number of reasons, one of which was his sticky fingers.  Upon his departure, the new Ukrainian government learned its people had been fleeced to provide luxuries that included a private zoo at Yanukovich’s estate.

Putin himself presides over an oligarchy with hearts of ice.  The biggest threat to his power is that the murderous blunder of arming the terrorists who shot down Flight MH17 might choke off the cash flow into all those well-connected pockets.

The “Arab Spring” wouldn’t have been much to talk about if Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and his pals hadn’t spent the preceeding decades lining their pockets, making the whack-job Muslim Brotherhood look good to people who would come to regret their decision.  Now that the Brotherhood is out of power in Egypt, their pals in Hamas are being meticulously stripped of the weapons and terror-tunnel network they built with money that should have been spent on essential government services for the residents of Gaza.  Diplomatic and humanitarian aid that doesn’t pay for guns and bombs has a way of ending up in numbered overseas accounts.

Show me an outspoken socialist strongman, and I’ll show you the palatial estate where this selfless Hero of the People sits on a mountain of treasure, blowing millions on such luxuries as imported Western pop singers to entertain at his parties.

And let’s not be smug here in the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave, because our Ruling Class has been showing itself a pretty good time on our confiscated nickels.  Washington, D.C. has become one of the richest zip codes in the nation.  High officials enjoy royal perks, including personal retinues and motorcades that would make the actual remaining monarchs of the world blush.  A bit further down the bureaucratic food chain, one of the great scandals of our day involved officials at the Department of Veterans Affairs falsifying paperwork – and leaving veterans to die – so their reports would look good, and they could grab plumb bonus checks.

The Western world has for too long been afflicted with the delusion of the Selfless Bureaucrat, the caring super-government that only wants to help people, unlike the greedy private sector, where fortunes are built by robbing the Little Guy.  Certainly there are hard-working and selfless people to be found working for every level of government…. but the notion that government is generally and inherently less selfish and more compassionate than the private sector is bunk.

The scandals of the Obama years make that painfully obvious, but it shouldn’t have taken massive scandals to make us understand that government, like any large private organization, is interested in expanding its power and wealth.  It is staffed with people who want the same things anyone laboring in corporate America wants: career advancement, personal recognition, and money.

The Western world has for too long been afflicted with the delusion of the Selfless Bureaucrat, the caring super-government that only wants to help people, unlike the greedy private sector, where fortunes are built by robbing the Little Guy.

There are a few big differences between selfish government and selfish industry, and once we’ve dispensed with the popular mythology that government is intrinsically wiser and more noble than any private operation, we can see most of the differences aren’t good.  The biggest one is that government is largely insulated from the consequences of selfishness.  In general, the people who profit from Big Government, and offer it ideological support, don’t think it can ever go “bankrupt.”  The enterprise itself can never fail.  It has no smaller, leaner competitors who can undercut its bids when greed causes it to become bloated and inefficient.  Its “customers” cannot easily abandon it.

On an individual level, the difficulty of terminating government employees is a matter of legend.  Your fingers are a sufficiently powerful instrument for counting the number of people who have actually lost their jobs due to Obama’s scandals.  One of the few things that would get a high official in really hot water would be reporting that his agency’s mission had been completely accomplished, and come in under budget to boot.  That’s just about the only way an organ of the State actually loses financial weight.

Another problem with greedy government is that it doesn’t have a murder of regulators circling in the sky overhead, waiting for it to make a false move so they can swoop in for the kill.  Who watches the watchmen, when they’re out of control?

Greedy government races into the arms of greedy Big Business like two lovers rushing to embrace across a field of daffodils in an old movie.  It’s the combination of the two that causes real problems for the hard-working American people.  Billions of tax dollars disappear into crony arrangements that never seem to provide real value to the chumps who paid the taxes.  Greedy special interests are eager to purchase government power to squash competition; politicians make a mint rushing to meet that demand.

Everything greedy government does is cloaked in a thick layer of sanctimony, which curdles into rage and hatred when things go wrong, and politicians need to divert blame.  For all the populist-Left rhetoric about business tycoons robbing the Little Guy, the fact is that tycoons need help from their government partners to pull off the really big heists.  Otherwise, the Little Guy is free to stop doing business with a company he feels is ripping him off.

And if a private enterprise builds a fortune by selling valuable goods and services people voluntarily buy, in a competitive environment… what’s the problem?  Look around whatever room you’re currently sitting in, and you’ll easily see a number of items that were products of corporate self-interest which have improved your life beyond measure, including whatever electronic device you are using to read this.  The daydream of purging self-interest from society is both foolish and dangerous. A successful society harnesses self-interest in just and constructive ways.  Everyone – from the entry-level worker, to the captain of industry, to the employees of the U.S. government – wants to do better for themselves and their families.  They all want to be part of something that succeeds.

The key to running a successful society is to channel these ambitions in productive directions.  Using government force to take what you want from others is not productive.  It also tends to make average citizens into the pawns of those who are really good at using power to take what they want.  As the ambitions of the powerful broaden, and the conditions of the people grow worse, that arrangement stops looking like arrogant and inefficient government, and becomes outright kleptocracy.  It’s not comforting to wonder if the VA official who puts veterans on secret death lists to collect a performance bonus is better than the deposed strongman who built a private zoo behind his estate… or whether the system that permits one is really all that much better than the system which enables the other.

None of this is intended as a “hate the government” screed.  That’s the point.  It’s not hateful to observe that people and institutions do not acquire a magical aura of righteousness and nobility just because they enter the public sector.  Respect for the truly demanding forms of public service can be paid without blinding us to the essential truth that only a small percentage of the population is truly selfless. There aren’t nearly enough of them to staff a tiny, streamlined government, let alone the modern Leviathan State.

The system they work for is not inherently noble, either.  That’s why we have laws that (should) restrict its behavior and limit its powers.  “If men were angels, no government would be necessary,” James Madison observed in the Federalist Papers. “If angels were to government men, no external or internal controls on government would be necessary.”  Why do we keep forgetting that simple admonition?  Simple: because the non-angels who govern us need us to keep forgetting it.

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