From nabobs buying votes in the House to Neil Hamilton asking questions for cash, from James I selling Baronets to the â€˜loans for peeragesâ€™ scandal, corruption and politics have always been intertwined. The above are examples of obvious corruption. Should however our definition of corruption in government be widened? At what point do government actions become a form of corruption?
Governments are elected on a manifesto which promises certain things; tax cuts, higher spending in certain areas, new laws and suchlike. Though each act by government will be portrayed as benefiting the majority of people in the country, in reality most government actions will only benefit certain groups. Governments are seen to have a mandate to spend taxpayersâ€™ money and make laws by virtue of their electoral victory. So far, so uncontroversial. My question is whether some of this expenditure and law making, legal and above the board though it might be, is actually a subtle form of corruption?
Take two examples (for balance): Margaret Thatcher allowing people to buy their council homes, and Gordon Brown giving millions to the trade unions so that they could modernise. Both acts were perfectly legal, and everybody knew what was going on. Neither Mr. Brown nor Mrs. Thatcher personally received any financial reward as a result of these actions, yet both actions could be said to be suspect. In Thatcherâ€™s case, the taxpayer was short-changed, while in Brownâ€™s case the loss was even more explicit.
There is a rational case to be made for both policies: people owning their own homes could be said to be good for society, while unions do need modernising to some degree. That is not the issue though, rather the issue is whether or not these actions were corrupt. Being allowed to by oneâ€™s home at subsidised rates created a class of people likely to vote for Thatcher. The Labour-unions agreed to carry on funding Labour, and the Labour government gave them (and other non-Labour unions) millions of pounds to fund their modernisation process.
If it turned out that everybody who voted for the party in power was to receive a thousand pounds each, there would be howls of protest. Yet there is little complaint when governments spend large amounts of money in marginal constituencies or constituencies which elected MPs of their party. Both parties are filled with lawyers, and surprisingly enough they are both inclined to make laws, helpfully providing more work for their former compatriots. Corruption? Why not?
I am well aware that taken to its logical extreme this argument could imply that all government spending could be classed as corrupt because the government of the day wants to stay in power. But if you reject this line, ask yourself, where does favouritism end and corruption begin? Does the very nature of the democratic process give governments the right to lavish our money on whomever they choose?
(Note to lawyers: I am not saying that any of the actions described outside the first paragraph are examples of corruption, merely raising the point).
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Filed in: Current affairs,Economics