What Can Be Done About Political Corruption?

How much corruption can a republic take before it ceases to be a republic? What can a free people do to root out bad actors without hindering good government? How much money in politics is “too much”? For that matter, how much “good government” is too much? Seth Leibsohn spoke with F.H. Buckley, author of “The Republic of Virtue: How We Tried to Ban Corruption, Failed, and What We Can Do About It.” Listen to the audio and read the transcript.

Seth Leibsohn: Welcome back to the Seth and Chris Show this Tuesday, December 12, 2017. Happy Birthday to my dear friends, Ethan and Gil, and to Francis Albert Sinatra, who would be celebrating his 102 years of birth this very day.

Polls close in Alabama, in about an hour, and it is at this point, our delight to welcome back to the airwaves of Phoenix, a dear friend, and a great scholar, Professor Frank Buckley, F.H. Buckley, Professor at George Mason University Law School, author of a brand-spanking-new book, great book, want to talk about that, too, “The Republic of Virtue: How we Tried to Ban Corruption, Failed, and What We Can Do About It.”

Before we get to your book, Professor Buckley, first of all, Merry Christmas and welcome back.

F.H. Buckley: Well, thanks very much, it’s great to be back.

Seth Leibsohn: You had a piece in the USA Today earlier this week titled, I think it was in opposition to that, a house editorial, but it was titled, “GOP Tax Bill Is Good For Middle-Class Americans.”

Would you like to say a few words about that, sir?

F.H. Buckley: Well, absolutely right. There’s a lot of talk about fiddling with the marginal rates, and what they’re doing is, basically benign and good and all that, but the real difference is what they’re gonna do to corporate taxes, and that sounds like, gosh, it’s a giveaway to the rich, right? Because hey, corporations, fat cats.

In fact, we have about the least competitive tax system right now in the first world, we have incredibly high, comparatively, corporate tax rates. If you add in federal and state, it’s on average about 39 percent. Ireland’s 15 percent, Canada is 15 percent. What that means is if you want to invest money, you’re gonna be looking at, basically, taking home a lot more money if you invest in other countries.

It’s been a disadvantage, dis-incentive for companies to invest in the United States, and that means the loss of jobs, so this is really about helping the American workers.

Seth Leibsohn: Now, a lot of people will say, Professor Buckley, that and I think this is the basic in elemental democratic party talking point, is that this is merely giveaway to the healthy and those who don’t need a tax cut, and that this notion of what we stand for might be described as a trickle down, and it’s only a trickle.

F.H. Buckley: Well, you know, basically this is all nonsense, and it’s talking points, and it’s politics, and don’t pay too much attention to that. In the first decade of this century, we shift about 29 million jobs offshore, right? These are people employed by subs of American companies, and we’ve lost about the same amount of jobs in this country, so it’s a jobs bill, nothing more or less.

The corporate coffers are monies that pension-fund people have a stake in, that all Americans have a stake in, but mostly what we’re talking about is the disappearance of American jobs, and how to bring them back. I will just give you one little statistic, or factoid. We’ve got about $2.5 trillion parked offshore, because it’s so much cheaper to invest offshore than it is in the United States, and the tax bill would offer a 10 percent tax on that, in other words a really, really, attractive tax.

What’s gonna happen is that money is gonna move back to the United States. You know what? We’re gonna become a tax haven, we’re gonna be attracting investments from all over the world—

Seth Leibsohn: Yeah, that’s a very good point. We will be the country we have used other countries for until now. That’s right.

F.H. Buckley: Exactly, yeah. Who’s gonna benefit? The guys who are gonna benefit are the guys who have seen their jobs disappear.

Seth Leibsohn: I’d like to, ’cause that’s a debate, Frank, Professor Buckley, that’s going to probably disappear within the next month or so, and I think every American who pays taxes will probably see a hike in their paycheck, and that will be good for everyone. If I could leave that temporary issue aside, I’d love to talk to you a little bit about your book if I can, because this is about what I like to call, the durable, this is about the permanent stuff.

F.H. Buckley: Yep.

Seth Leibsohn: Your book just out, “The Republic of Virtue.” Talk to me a little bit about that, Frank. There’s a lot of disgust with politics right now, with our political leaders right now, people are still not over the 2016 election, I don’t know if they’ll ever be over the 2016 election. Virtue, and the leadership virtue as leadership seems to be one of the things farthest from the lips and tongues of most American voters right now.

F.H. Buckley: Well, it was a big, perhaps somewhat unrecognized issue in 2016, because in the election we had one fellow saying, “We want to drain the swamp,” and that’s a call to get rid of corruption, and the other hand we had corruption personified in Hilary Clinton. I mean, if you want to understand our problem with corruption in this country, all you had to do was follow Hilary Clinton around and take notes, and she’ll tell you how to do it.

That was really a huge issue, it really resonated with a lot of democrats, as well as a lot of republicans. On a lot of economic issues, ordinary voters, Republican or Democrat agree on a lot of issues, and one thing they agree about is they really don’t like corruption.

Now, you can say whatever you want about Obama. I mean, I think he was cruelly indifferent to the American people. Loyal to his friends, but indifferent to most Americans. I don’t think he was a mean person, however; and I don’t think he was a particularly corrupt person, apart from just liking power.

Hillary, on the other hand, had a mean streak that made, I think, Richard Nixon look like an angel, and this was somebody who just cleaned up in her time in office, and her husband’s time in office, they made a ton of money. It was properly called the “Clinton Cash Machine.”

One of the issues here was, we think we’re better than that, right? What my book did was, I guess I offer a new reading on what the Constitution is all about. There are a lot of different stories you can tell about what the Constitution is about, but if you pay attention to what the delegates to the Philadelphia Convention in 1787, what they really were talking about—they weren’t citing John Locke, they were talking about more bread-and-butter issues. They were talking about things that really mattered to them like, the power of the states versus the federal government, but one issue on which they were all united was corruption. They liked the British constitution. They liked the idea of British liberties, but the one thing they couldn’t tolerate was what they saw as corruption in Britain, and it really was corrupt.

They thought they could do better than that and so at crucial points in the convention, really at a time when everyone was a blow of their heads. When people were threatening to hang each other, when people were threatening walkouts, what got them all together was the fear of corruption, and the idea that they could make a constitution, which could oppress corruption, and so I argue that when you read carefully what was going on, the best way to understand the Constitution is as an anti-corruption covenant. And then it didn’t quite turn out that way, I mean-

Seth Leibsohn: Right, that’s such the interesting story, and then there are two angles I wanna talk to you about that. The virtue angle and then the slightly different facts on the ground corruption angle. Let me start with the second, since I botched it a little bit in my description, and it’ll give you the opportunity to explain what I’m talking about, what I know you’re expert at as well. This is, we have made various attempts, many in our lifetime, our mutual lifetimes, Professor Buckley, to stop corruption. One of them had to do with ongoing from the 1970s campaign finance laws. The campaign finance laws were an effort to stop corruption. It is partly your thesis, is it not, that they ended up doing more harm than good?

F.H. Buckley: Yeah, exactly right. By the way, what I find interesting is the guys who talk about corruption, the scholars who talk about it, mostly they’re people on the left. I’m about the only guy on the right saying, “Hey, we’ve got a problem here.” You know, the guys on the left they always include, “Well, right, we didn’t want to have a lot of corruption in the government and we have it and so the answer is let’s have real tough, much tougher, campaign finance laws.” I argue that this made things worse.

Seth Leibsohn: Can I ask you to pause on that cause we’re going to a break. Do you have a little more time for us?

F.H. Buckley: Totally.

Seth Leibsohn: Great, cause this deserves full ventilation, because what you say about it, what I have said about it, what Chris says about it, it’s a little account of conventional wisdom on this.

We’re talking to Professor Frank Buckley, F.H Buckley. His new book, “The Republic of Virtue: How We Tried to Ban Corruption, Failed, and What We Can Do About it”. For The Politically Minded. A great Christmas gift. “The Republic of Virtue” with Frank Buckley, when we return.

Welcome back to the Seth and Chris show. I’m Seth Leibsohn, he is Chris Buskirk, delighted to be talking to Professor F.H. Buckley and his brand new book, “The Republic of Virtue: How We Tried to Ban Corruption, Failed, and What We Can Do About It.”

One of the aspects we were getting into, Professor Buckley, right before the break and wanted to give you a full-throated opportunity on this, was the campaign finance laws was an attempt to end certain corruption may have caused more, and we were just getting into that if you wanna pick it up.

F.H. Buckley: Yeah, well the campaign finance laws came from Watergate Congress of 1974 and it was a well-invented piece of legislation, but there’s kind of answered prayers problem here. You know that more tears are shed over answered prayers, so we got campaign finance laws but did it really help? The point is, what has happened is, the laws become so completely complicated, with so many loopholes that it’s really become a trap for the unwary. It’s like a net that has a curious feature that the big fish could sail through while the small fish get caught. The small fish are people that give $5,000 illegally, which they could have done properly if they had a lawyer beside them. The big fish are people who figured out how you can give $350,000 a year to a presidential candidate if you spread it around and with your wife over two years, that’s $1.5 million. You know, the big fish can do it fine, as long as they have their lawyers, but what we’ve done is we’ve criminalized the act of careless political giving. When that happens it’s a temptation for highly politicized prosecutors to go after political enemies.

That’s a bipartisan point, because Republicans have played that game and obviously the Democrats have played that game, so we’d be better off without any of them. I mean, because the limits for contributions are so high if you know how to play your cards right, we’d be better off if we just said, “Right, it’s unlimited.”

Seth Leibsohn: The problem now on the other side of it, I think is that they are so low for those that don’t know how to play their cards right [crosstalk 00:12:40], is that there is an effective bard of people who aren’t wealthy or friendly with wealthy people, quite frankly, to getting in.

F.H. Buckley: Yeah, right, and when people start to complain about those there’s an immense amount of press about that issue and it’s all about eliminating the scandal of Republican money in politics, like there are … Hillary outspent Trump by about 1/3 I think. You know, 1.5 trillion compared to … I’m getting my numbers wrong, but whatever. She outspent him incredibly, and there are these big left-wing donors, more power to them, and no ticks on them, but when people complain about it, it’s always the scandal of what the Coke brothers whatever. You know, but the fact is that people on both sides are spending a lot of money, and I say, fine, let them do it—let’s respect the little guy and don’t send them to jail, because we effectively disapprove their politics.

Seth Leibsohn: Right.

F.H. Buckley: The other thing is, I think contributions should be anonymous, or that people should have the right to make anonymous contributions, because when that happens you remove the scandal of pay to play politics, right? If you want to influence a congressman and get something back from the guy, you know in terms of some goodies, some payback, well it’s not gonna happen if the contribution is anonymous.

Seth Leibsohn: OK, so let me make sure I understand what you’re saying. Anonymous to the donee, anonymous to the candidate as well as to the public.

F.H. Buckley: Yeah, right, well the guy who gave the money knows what he’s doing but it’s just like kind of a, well not a blank check, but it’s a check where his name will not be known to the candidate.

Seth Leibsohn: No, I mean that would be a reform that no one should oppose, I would think. That gets—

F.H. Buckley: Well, in fact, it was sprouted up by people on the Left 10 years back, but it’s kind of died on the vine since then. I think it’s a great idea and in particular, it’s a great idea right now, because what’s happened in the last 10 years is now we have these internet mobs that can make your life hell, right? By [crosstalk 00:14:55].

Seth Leibsohn: Get you fired from your job. Yeah you can get fired from your job.

F.H. Buckley: Yeah, get you fired from your job. There is a website in DC, for example, that lists all of the people who contributed to the Trump campaign in the district, and it says who they are and where they live and what their wife’s name is and how many kids they have and where they go jogging, and they speculate that “Gee, maybe one of our Antifa guys could kind of jog with them and so on.

It’s an invitation to violence, and we’ve already seen violence, right? This is something we need to protect people from the ordinary plane of politics. We will be a more democratic society in that if we remove the threat levels.

Seth Leibsohn: The other side of the title of your book, the essence, the … of your book, Professor Buckley, that I wanted to get into, you were talking about founding the constitutional convention, you read the federalist papers. The title of the book is “The Republic of Virtue,” and there was a lot of talk of the kinds of people that the founders envisioned occupying high office and words like virtue were among the kinds of adjectives described in the kinds of people they wanted in office, they thought should be leaders of the American … of the young Republic of America. One would look around today and say, “You know, we’re just not seeing very much of that.” We could name on two or three fingers any political leader that we would hold up as saying there walks a man, there walks a woman of virtue. There walks a man, there walks a woman of character. What say you about this?

F.H. Buckley: Well, we’re all in humanity. I mean, the title of my book was somewhat ironic, I mean, the optimal level of corruption is not zero, because that would require a rough spear to cut off a lot of heads.

Seth Leibsohn: Correct. [crosstalk 00:16:53]. And I noticed you quote him up front, right?

F.H. Buckley: Yeah, so that’s not what we want. And the framers had these very anti-democratic theories that the best thing you could do would be to kind of separate the leaders, like the president from the people by having intermediate people elect them. That was the idea behind the electors, for example, the presidential electors, and Madison thought that the way it should work would be, the people elect the House, the House chooses the Senate, and the Senate and the house together choose the president, and they thought virtually kind of move up the ladder, the cream would rise to the top. I guess, a lot of people felt that way in 1787, but if that were the case then you’d have to say, “Well, those wonderful people in Congress and the House of Representatives, bless their hearts they’re so much more moral than we who are swine back in the boonies, the ordinary voters.” Yeah. I don’t think like that. I don’t think too many Americans think like that. I don’t think that we think that we are electing people who are more virtuous than us. In some cases we think just the opposite.

I mean, so the answer is not trying to identify the specifically virtuous person and promoting them up, except through an ordinary election. The answer is competitive politics, right? You know, the best answer to any of this is let’s have full transparency about government and let’s have honest elections and let’s make them competitive. You know the decline of Federalism didn’t exactly help us either.

Seth Leibsohn: No, I agree with that as well. Yeah, no we’re heading into a break, Professor Buckley, I want to congratulate you on your book, I want to recommend it again. “The Republic of Virtue: How We Tried to Ban Corruption, Failed, and What we Can Do About It.” Next time we have you on, sir, we’ll talk more about the what we can do about it. Merry Christmas and congratulations, professor.

F.H. Buckley: Thanks very much. Happy Hanukkah too.

Seth Leibsohn: You bet. 602-508-0960. Lines are now open.

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3 responses to “What Can Be Done About Political Corruption?

  • Prosecute and enforce laws on the books, term limits, no out of state money in state elections, Candidates from states have to have lived in that state for 10 years previous to running for office.

  • I’m sorry I got to this late. As to corruption: Until politicians are debarred from taking money (property) from one group of citizens, to give it to another group of citizens, all in order to buy votes, it won’t stop. If and when the American people decide to keep their hands in their own pockets and don’t expect others to take care of their wants and needs, the problem will be fixed.

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