One of the odder aspects of modern Realpolitik is the almost universal avoidance of Lord Acton’s dictum that “power tends to corrupt.” Almost no one ever acknowledges that this influence applies to citizens as well as politicians, and that the lust for domination and “getting one’s way” in the political realm corrupts at the ideological level more surely than at any other.

People who talk about corruption invariably mean the taking of bribes or the practice of nepotism or the like. But the most common instances of corruption are the policies that politicians and citizens push.

I would say that the typical policy package of a modal right-winger or modal left-winger — or even (perhaps especially) a moderate — provides us the best examples of corruption in modern times. The grand example is favoring some at the expense of others. That is corruption, the perversion of the division of responsibility. Insisting on programs of subsidy, for instance, but supporting those subsidies from “some other guy.” The old bit of doggerel here applies:

Don’t tax me,
Don’t tax thee —
Tax the fellow behind that tree.

Bastiat defined it as “everyone attempting to live at the expense of everyone else.” Recent policies that stand out as corrupt in and of themselves include

  • banker bailouts
  • auto-maker bailouts
  • protectionism to “preserve ‘our’ jobs”
  • “make the rich pay their fair share” when the rich already pay more of federal taxes than the nominal middle class

If you want to talk about corruption, you must look to the policies themselves.