I have a libertarian Trump supporting friend with whom I maintain regular correspondence. He’s unhappy with Trump’s “character flaws,” but likes his policies because they’ve been dismantling the federal government piece-by-piece, something he’s wanted for a long time. He’s not persuaded by accusations of Trump’s unethical, perhaps criminal track record because he believes all politicians and corporate leaders are equally corrupt, so what’s the difference? There was a time, he thinks, fifty or sixty years ago when it wasn’t so, but it is now.
In his view, Trump is no worse than Hillary, Biden or any other politician. They’re all equally bad. Regular people, real people, are not as fallen as that, but politicians and corporate leaders are. Left on their own, regular people, real people, would do very well with limited local governments and smaller family owned businesses. It’s a romantic ideal prizing the rural life of small towns populated by self sufficient citizens right out of Hallmark Channel movies. What’s keeping us from it is the evil of big government, socialism, and greedy corporations, all led by corrupt people. They’re represented by the worst of the darkest of Batman’s Gotham City.
Having spent a good many years working on the edges of public policy at the federal level, and with a wide variety of corporate leaders, I disagree. I don’t believe politicians and corporate leaders are either more or less ethical than ever. In fact, I have a generally high regard for most of them, but there have been systemic changes making ethical commitments harder to keep, or, maybe, more costly to keep.
For instance, in that magical time of fifty or sixty years ago, many of the largest corporations had strong ties to their home communities, the places where they came into being. Major share holders were often heirs of the founders, or executives with deep roots in the community. Minority share holders were widely distributed among the local population. The result was an implied commitment to the well being of the community. Those connections have faded away. Major shareholders are more likely to be mutual funds, pension funds, and impersonal hedge fund types. Computerized algorithms create wild gyrations in the stock market, as technotraders try to eke out profitable margins on the casino tables of the floor, rather than investing in a company’s future. When connections to communities and their people are severed, so are implied ethical commitments.
Current tax and corporate governance law, as I vaguely understand it, requires CEOs and boards to manage affairs for short term maximum return based on share value. It means manipulating the business to keep stock prices as high as possible outweighs all other commitments, no matter what the annual report and press releases claim. Moreover, the seductiveness of super salaries for senior executives can easily subvert good intentions to be ethically responsible decision makers. Paul warned his student Timothy that ”a love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.” (I Tim. 6) I can’t ask the corporate world to adopt Christian values, but I can point out the universal truth of Paul’s warning, and encourage actions that might mitigate the corrupting influence of demands to maximize monetary return to the exclusion of all other forms of return.
It seems to me that a few minor changes to the law, together with a high marginal rate on super salaries, would do a lot to change things for the better. Corporate tax incentives for better wages at lower levels, and tax disincentives for excessive stock buybacks and super salaries might work to improve both investment and wage distribution.
Over the course of many decades, I’ve met and engaged with hundreds of politicians at the local, state and national levels, as well as staff on one hand and corporate lobbyists on the other. For the most part, they have been people who desired to do what they believed to be right for their constituents, and tried to do it with integrity, keeping in mind that defining integrity is always influenced by the social mores of the time. There were always exceptions. They often made the headlines. Some went to prison. I think it’s still true.
Yes, the political life is filled with dangers. You can’t be a politician and not have an ego that delights in public approbation. Doing whatever is needed to get it is dangerous. Being skilled in the give and take of political negotiating with other ego driven politicians is a must. Losing one’s way by making it a zero sum game is dangerous. State capitals, and Washington, D.C. to an even greater extent, are filled with people attracted by power, intent on getting as close to it as possible, and competing with each other for position and influence. It can be very seductive. There’s a fine line between legitimate influence and bribery paid with money, sex, and insider trading tips. Moreover, what’s moral and what’s legal are not the same thing.
That’s life in any capital city at any time in human history. An honest reading of American political history reveals the ebb and flow, push and pull, between political integrity and political opportunism, between corruption and reform, between justice and injustice. Over time we have made enormous strides toward “a more perfect union”, but we have made them stumbling and lurching. Popular memory prefers another image of smoother progress combined with reverent patriotism, and faith in the future. It’s a wonderful image now torn into polarization that I think came from sources claiming patriotism for themselves while denying it to others.
The rise of extreme libertarianism (tea partiers, freedom caucus, etc.), combined with propaganda machines skilled at using the internet and social media, have undermined respect and support for the institutions of government, and led their followers in an authoritarian direction, all in the name of patriotism. It’s worked well for a relatively small number of corporate barons (Koch, et al) who have little respect for the libertarian masses, and would prefer Oligarchical control over as thin a veneer of democracy as they can get away with. But even they have convinced themselves it would be for the good of the nation, claiming and believing in their own integrity.
Is it cause for despair? For worry, certainly, but not yet for despair. Politics remains the art of deciding how we want to live together in community, whether local, state or national. It is, in that regard, a noble art worthy of our best efforts, and one in which every citizen should play their part. Our federal system of representative democracy is unique in the democratic world, and it’s lumbered through several centuries to prove itself enduring, flexible, and resistant to being overwhelmed by those who would corrupt it for their own benefit, or push it away from democratic ideals. We have reached a nadir with the current administration, but House investigations and the 2020 election may yet turn us in a better direction.