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Problems in Democracy 01

The House Ethics Committee has changed reporting  requirements for members who receive free travel from a variety of groups. The travel will still be reported but only on the House Clerk's website, making it less likely for watchdog groups—aka paid snoops—and journalists—aka professional liars—to keep track of their indubitably corrupt activities. To answer Nancy Pelosi's complaint that this is not a step toward transparency, John Boehner's staff told reporters that Pelosi's own staff signed off on the changes.

None of this is terribly interesting except for the feeble beam of light it shines on the "ethics" of the two parties. Publicly, the Democrats are always squealing about the need for transparency, for campaign reform, for high ethical standards, while the Republicans take their stand on freedom, the Constitution, and the g-d-given right of all Americans to spend their money on whatever illegal or disgusting activity stirs their blood, so long as Republican voters will not be offended. Glaucoma patients may not buy dope but, if they and their allies have the money, they can buy a congressman or two.

Most Americans, unless they are stupid enough to belong to a political party,  know it is a sham, because both sides are equally corrupt. The only difference is that in most years Republicans stand a better chance of getting big money—which makes them unmoved by the siren song of campaign reform—while Democrats know that if they can hamstring the Republicans with rules that they themselves intend to break, leftist judges and the leftist media will do everything they can to look the other way or find a loophole in the prosecution. The last honest Democrat in the Senate, Russ Feingold, was openly ridiculed by one of the masters of corruption—Ms. Clinton. (It is an insult to the dignity of wives to refer to such a thing as "Mrs.")

If we were to get seriously "real" about political reform, there are several possible remedies to entertain. One of them, which I have discussed briefly in the past, would be to auction off political offices to the highest bidder or, alternatively, to require elected officials to post an appropriate bond to indemnify their constituents for budget enormities, deficits, etc. But I save that proposal for another time. What I propose today is to take a page out of the Athenian "constitution."

In the Golden Age of Greek Democracy, Athenian politicians (as well as politicians in most democratic states) who assumed high office were assumed guilty. Typically, they held office for only a year, and as they made way for the next crook, they were subjected to a routine scrutiny of their accounts. Even if they passed, they could still be sued by any citizen within a specified time period. If they could not prove themselves innocent, they could be convicted theft—the plain word they used for embezzlement—or of receiving "gifts" (as well as of lesser crimes). A politician convicted of theft or bribe-taking would be required to pay ten times the sum involved, and until he did pay up, he and his descendants were deprived of civil rights, such as the rights to vote, hold office, sit on juries, sue in court, etc.

Athenians were crazy enough to make their experiment in democracy, but they were neither stupid nor naïve. They were perfectly aware that men who pursue power will almost certainly abuse it in the course of their relentless pursuit of wealth, power, and other men's women. They took every conceivable step to limit the mischief their leaders could do: They imposed strict term limits on offices, allocated most political positions to a drawing of previously scrutinized candidates, though they exempted important positions, such as that of general and treasurer, and they assumed their leaders were guilty of corruption unless they could prove themselves innocent. Even then, they failed to prevent their democratic leaders from sending them over the cliff. Nonetheless, they tried.

What can Americans say:

"We were too stupid to know what our leaders were up to?"

"We knew but we didn't care so long as we got something out of it?"

"We knew and cared, but we were just too busy watching images on a screen and gibbering into our iPhone to do anything?" 

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is the former editor of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is the author of The Politics of Human Nature, Montenegro: The Divided Land, and The Morality of Everyday Life, named Editors' Choice in philosophy by Booklist in 2005. He is the coauthor of The Conservative Movement and the editor of Immigration and the American Identity. He holds a Ph.D. in classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Before joining the Rockford Institute, he taught classics at the University of Miami of Ohio, served as an advisor to the U.S. Department of Education, and was headmaster at the Archibald Rutledge Academy. He has been published in, among others, The Spectator (London), Independent on Sunday (London), Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, USA Today, Chicago Sun-Times, National Review, Classical Journal, Telos, and Modern Age. He and his wife, Gail, have four children and four grandchildren.

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