Why Political Corruption Matters

Most people, I find, have some potent memory from early childhood, in which they lied and then felt the blistering sting of remorse. For me, that memory takes me back to age five, when the two (much older) girls next door persuaded me to sneak ginger cookies and candy canes off of our Christmas tree so that we could eat them. I knew that this was forbidden, and at first I refused, but they said they would stop being my friend if I didn’t play along. So I stole the treats, lied about it, and was eventually caught. I can’t remember how I was punished but I do remember my father’s dreadfully stern face when he confronted me. And I remember the lingering sense of having done something terribly, terribly wrong.

There is a reason why lying is such a temptation for children, and a reason, too, why adults are so anxious to curb the tendency. For the powerless, mendacity is a primary refuge against the intrusion of authority. When the exercise of authority is good and necessary (as in the parental case), lying is clearly detrimental to moral growth. Thus, parents are right to insist on the importance of truthfulness. A misuse of authority, on the other hand, can make for some morally complicated situations.  The systematic abuse of power can have many terrible effects, but honesty is one of the saddest casualties.

It’s something we should take time to consider given recent trends in the United States. A year after the current administration was shown to preside (at least in a general way) over a government rife with scandal and corruption, nothing has ever really been resolved, and many liberal journalists have gone back to repeating that nothing really happened. Do not believe this. Any fair-minded observer would clearly see that the IRS engaged in inappropriate political advocacy by harassing conservative groups, that the State Department engaged in a cover-up to keep the Benghazi disaster from sinking the president’s electoral chances, and that the Justice Department threatened journalists who were not sufficiently supportive of the White House’s agenda. Those are just the highlights. None of this has ever really been resolved.

In a time when most people are weary of politics, it’s easy for Americans to dismiss these kinds of abuses as “things that don’t affect me.” Conservatives may make this even easier by allowing their more libertarian impulses to trump their good-government advocacy. Hearing more speeches from Republicans about the problems intrinsic to overweening government, the public simply concludes that the Republicans are on their favorite subject again and that we must be back to business as usual. The problem goes deeper than this, however. Citizens of relatively free societies simply have trouble appreciating the deep and pervasive impact that oppressive authority can have on a society.

I was able to see this firsthand when I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan from 2002 through 2004. Uzbekistan is by any realistic account a dictatorship. Islam Karimov, the Soviet administrator who assumed power in 1989, continues to rule a country that has remained economically, politically and morally stagnant. Back in the USSR, Uzbekistan was derisively regarded by many as the armpit of the Soviet Union; nevertheless, many older Uzbeks describe that period as the good old days in comparison to what their nation has become.

For Uzbeks, as for so many people in the world today, powerlessness in the face of oppressive authority is a way of life. They know that subterfuge is their only defense, so they stay away from public buildings and try to keep important officials from ever learning their names. Uzbek friends explained to me (but they really didn’t need to because I witnessed it firsthand) that their instinct around authority figures is to lie first, and reveal the truth only when absolutely necessary, especially when the truth is in any way revealing of the details of their personal lives. The last thing an Uzbek wants is to chat up an official about his home life. Though desperately poor, they will happily pay a crippling bribe in order to stay out of court. It barely occurs to them that their “justice system” would actually be in the business of dispensing justice.

Over time, I came to see a connection between citizens’ relationship to the state, and the general spirit of mendacity that seemed to reach deep into the bones of the culture. I learned quickly that I had to be attentive at my shopping, because merchants readily identified me (a foreigner) as a likely mark for a dishonest or wildly exorbitant price. (Uzbeks generally don’t post fixed prices in the market, so I had to pay attention to what other people were paying before buying anything myself.) My students were so addicted to cheating that I eventually stopped giving tests. I would have had to physically restrain them to stop them from copying one another’s papers, and when I reported my problems to the department head and the principal, they all seemed unconcerned. More than once I issued an invitation to someone and had it accepted, only to find that they did not appear. “I was afraid you’d be angry if I told you to your face I couldn’t come,” they would say when I confronted them later.

If asked why I am a “good government conservative” and not a libertarian, my answer could easily be: because Uzbekistan. I do want government to be smaller than it is. But witnessing life in a failed state enabled me to realize firsthand how much the quality of government can affect the character of its citizens. The degree to which that influence can be positive is a topic for further discussion; freedom is, to be sure, an important part of moral formation. I still think government can have some proper role positively forming the character of citizens. More importantly though, we should recognize that governmental corruption can have a profound negative impact, not just on prosperity, but also on virtue. It teaches us to regard authority as a threat, and thereby inculcates habits that are slavish and vicious.

Americans across the political spectrum should realize that we are not simply immune to this kind of oppression-induced misery. The corruption in our government most certainly is not on a level with what we see in countries like Uzbekistan, but unless we respond to governmental scandals with appropriate outrage, we will continue to move along that same path. That Hillary Clinton is seen as the Democratic front-runner despite her role in the Benghazi affair discourages me almost beyond words. Americans should demand better. It really is not too much to say that both lives and souls are at stake.

Rachel Lu


Rachel Lu, a Catholic convert, teaches philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota where she lives with her husband and four boys. Dr. Lu earned her Ph.D. in philosophy at Cornell University. Follow her on Twitter at rclu.

  • Arriero

    Pope Francis affirmed: «Christians are not corrupt, but sinners»

    (the text in Spanish, reflexions about corruption and sin. A very interesting text)

    «Y nosotros debemos decirnos pecadores, sí, ¡todos, aquí, todos lo somos. Corruptos, no. El corrupto está fijo en un estado de suficiencia, no sabe qué cosa es la humildad. Jesús, a estos corruptos, les decía: ‘La belleza de ser sepulcros blanqueados, que parecen bellos, por afuera, pero dentro están llenos de huesos muertos y de putrefacción. Y un cristiano que se vanagloria de ser cristiano, pero que no hace vida de cristiano, es uno de estos corruptos. Todos conocemos a alguien que está en esta situación, ¡y cuánto mal hacen a la Iglesia! Cristianos corruptos, sacerdotes corruptos… ¡Cuánto mal hace a la Iglesia! Porque no viven en el espíritu del Evangelio, sino en el espíritu de la mundanidad […] Una podredumbre barnizada: ésta es la vida del corrupto. Y Jesús no les decía sencillamente ‘pecadores’ a estos, les decía: ‘hipócritas’. Y qué bello, aquel otro, ¿no? ‘Si cometiera una culpa siete veces al día contra ti y siete veces viniera a ti diciendo: ‘Estoy arrepentido, soy pecador’, tù lo perdonarás’. Es lo que Él hace con los pecadores. Él no se cansa de perdonar, sólo con la condición de no querer hacer esta doble vida, de ir a Él arrepentidos: ‘¡Perdóname, Señor, soy pecador!’. ‘Pero, vas adelante, vas adelante: yo lo sé’».

    And he finished reaffirming that idea:

    «[…] así es el Señor. Pidamos hoy la gracia al Espíritu Santo que huye de todo engaño, pidamos la gracia de reconocernos pecadores: somos pecadores. Pecadores, sí. Corruptos, no». (so is the Lord. Let us now grace the Holy Spirit to flee from all deception, ask for the grace to recognize ourselves sinners: we are sinners. Sinners, yes. Corrupt, no)

    This differentiation that made Pope Francis annoys heavily the protestants, who hate and despise – and probably don’t understand – the greatness of Confession and the real meaning of sin, forgiveness and mercy.

    • cpsho

      In many parts of the world Kleptomania is a serious problem among the ruling elite.
      So can someone tell us about the psychological genesis of this disorder?
      Should we discriminate against this people? Or should we unjustly treat them?
      I wonder what the Catechism (produced under the watch of JP 2 and Cardinal Ratzinger) says about this particular sin?
      Or don’t kleptomaniacs deserve as much sympathy as those who wish to label themselves “gay”?

  • tamsin

    When you wrote Hearing more speeches from Republicans about the problems intrinsic to overweening government, the public simply concludes that the Republicans are… I thought you were going to continue: watching the watchers, and therefore nothing more need be done. There is a sense that, as long as somebody is worried about it, I don’t have to be.

    When I was growing up, and we neighborhood kids were playing a game, and one kid tried to cheat… nobody liked it; everybody rejected it, no matter whose team he was on, because it ruined the game: you had to stop playing and start arguing. Everybody liked the game better than the arguing (except for that one kid).

    Looking at Washington DC, the Obama administration seems to be populated by kids who hide the ball, and want to argue that they didn’t hide it because you can’t find it. And your hunt for the ball is only “political”. Talk about abuse of language! When did we stop being a polity? Why wasn’t I told? Kid, get off my lawn! Go argue somewhere else!

    And the Media “wants what it wants”, so no help there as long as government is moving the American people in its direction.

    • Thomas

      I don’t think my post went through, so I’ll try again.

      You have touched on something that I see in the high school classroom. Kids think the prison culture of “Don’t rat someone out” is correct.

      It’s not. It lets bad guys get away with things–things that slowly erode the fabric of the institution or the society or culture. Further, in days past, good kids could stop the bully or the classroom idiot by knocking his block off. Today, the good kid gets in just as much trouble or worse than the offender. But, this is no surprise to anyone here; the insidiousness of evil is prevalent when authority subscribes to relativism.

      • Thomas

        correction: evil is more than prevalent, it THRIVES with relativism.

  • JenniB

    My first thought upon reading this essay is, “I’m closer to the Ubeks because of growing up in an abusive household.” I don’t say this because it’s a good thing. I say this because when the power in one’s life is corrupt rather than just one develops a number of toxic self-preservation skills.

    The media sexually abuses our children (if we let them). Our politicians and pundits abuse our dignity by lying to us. No wonder so many young people have for all practical purposes bought out of “the system.”

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  • Guest

    That the exaggerated Benghazi “cover up” is the best example of dangerous corruption in our recent past or present that you can think of (anyone remember when cabinet members went on Sunday morning programs to pretend that Hussein had “reconstituted nuclear weapons” and that “we know where they are”?) “discourages me almost beyond words.”

    • Objectivetruth

      I’m sure former Navy SEAL’s Sean Smith and Glen Doherty, killed in the Benghazi attack, mothers and family’s would disagree with you. The Obama White House and State Department dishonored them by LIEING about how their deaths came about for political expediency to win an election. Period. And the constant lies by the Obama administration flow out of the White House like sewage from a drain pipe : “you can keep your insurance plan”, as one example. Rachel’s article is spot on. The Obama administration has raised lieing to a pornographic art and demonic virtue.

      Shame on you for dismissing and trivializing the deaths of four Americans in Benghazi. Do not avoid the fact: Obama and his demonic minions once again LIED about their deaths to get reelected.

      • Watosh

        It appears that a lot of people, especially Republicans, want the truth to come out about the happenings in Benghazi. Obama is being pilloried because (1) he falsely claimed the attack was caused by an video that inflamed the Moslem world. That was not true. (2) The Republicans and other good old conservative minded among us want an investigation to see whether Obama and members of his administration were remiss in providing for the protection of the American consulate in the Benghazi. It certainly appears they were. (3) As I recall, I believe four (4) Americans unfortunately were murdered by the terrorists in this attack.

        Compare this with what happened after the 9/11 attack on the twin towers (1) after the attack Bush told Americans we were attacked because the terrorists hated our freedoms, which was patently untrue, they hated our policies (2) The Republicans who controlled Congress and the president Bush fiercely opposed any investigation as to how 15 Saudi Arabians could outsmart all our vast intelligence network, and to establish why, with all the warnings the Bush administration received all during the summer, and then president Bush took the month of august off to vacation in Texas. The only reason there was any investigation came because of the public fuss made by the widows of the victims of 9/11, then reluctantly the Republicans vastly underfunded the investigation that was to take place, and key classified documents could only be viewed by one member of the committee appointed to investigate, and he was an administration insider. That was when Bush insisted the only way he would testify before the committee for a limited time was if Dick Cheney could represent with him and no notes could be taken and no recording devices could be present. In short the investigation was designed to be a white-wash. (3) the number of Americans killed in this fiasco was over 3,000. So I ask you gentle reader to compare what the Republicans wanted then and what they want now. What would account for the different attitude on our Republican quest for the facts. The hypocrisy of the Republicans is only matched by the hypocrisy of the Democrats and Obama in accusing Russia for starting the mess in Ukraine, and for Russia violating the territorial integrity of the Ukraine whose government had just been overthrown by a Western encouraged coup and for invading the Crimea under false pretexts. Which pretty well describes our invasion of Iraq, the only thing is the Russian invasion did not cause the loss of life of anyone whereas our invasion of Iraq resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths or Iraqi’s with million of Iraqi’s becoming refugees, and thousands of American soldiers lives, and tens of thousands of American soldiers wounded, and Iraq ended up utterly ruined as a nation. But with any luck we may avoid a nuclear war.

        • It’s always about Bush, isn’t it?

          • Watosh

            Yes, the truth does hurt sometimes, and I’m sorry if I punctured any of your balloons.

          • TheAbaum

            Apparently Boosh Derangement Syndrome is a permanent disability.

        • Joseph

          I will only add, 9/11 was an inside job. The Republicans committed the crime, and now the Democrat administration continues the cover-up. Both are criminals and liars.
          I will also add, Sandy Hook was a hoax, nobody was killed.
          The Boston bombing was another FEMA drill with paid crisis actors.
          I don’t want to appear as if I was only bashing the Republicans, or only the Democrats.
          Both are lying scoundrels.

    • Augustus

      What exaggeration? If the administration told the truth from the start we would know more completely how disgracefully they behaved before, during, and after the Benghazi terrorist attack. But honesty is not a characteristic of Obama or his minions. Only through court-mandates have we gotten documents that should have been turned over to Congress a year ago. This is the most secretive administration in my lifetime, despite the lie from Obama that it would be the most transparent. We can’t expect the truth from him because the truth is not flattering nor does it advance his agenda (“If you like your healthcare…”). Benghazi is one example of several recent examples of corruption. Naturally the left wants to blame every real or imagined problem on Bush rather than face up to the scandals and incompetence of the current presidency. With the left, the ends justify the means so naturally, if the administration needs to lie about what happened in Benghazi to win an election, so be it. For them, Utopia is worth a few lives.
      Furthermore, whoever said Iraq reconstituted its nuclear weapons? Their nuclear reactor was destroyed by Israel. Did the Bush administration say Hussein had WMDs? Yes. Everybody thought so. And if he didn’t he could easily rebuild his stockpile once the sanctions were lifted. That was the argument. Did they lie? We don’t know and the left has never proved anything. But a lie repeated often–like the lies about Bush–is all the evidence the left needs to discredit and marginalize its enemies.

  • Pamela

    Excellent insights.

  • Nick_Palmer3

    Friedrich Hayek nailed it in ‘The Road to Serfdom.’ As government gets larger and more intrusive, it is in essence “telling people what to do” across more aspects of daily life. Most people (?) neither enjoy nor even wish to tell others what to do. Some, however, do. And those bullies are the ones who gravitate to government positions where they can terrorize ordinary people going about their lives.

    How many Crisis readers would wish to be an IRS agent seizing an unemployed man’s family bank account because he’s fallen on hard times? The government must be paid before even the rent or the food bill, certainly before children’s clothes. Likewise the EPA inspector who nixes a planned home addition because of “wetlands.” What size sodas should we drink? What foods should we eat? And these days, what thoughts can we think and what values are we permitted to live by?

    Government attracts self-righteous thugs. Big government becomes exponentially more dangerous than when small.

    • TheAbaum

      The same IRS that hands out freebies without proper verification.

      Do I have to point out the corruption of an agency that provides bonuses to its employees with outstanding tax debts.

      Maybe they’d prefer to work in the regulatory apparatus (SEC, DOJ) that nailed Martha Stewart (no fan) but missed Bernie Madoff while surfin porn at work?

      You forgot the government that tells us how much water our commode should use.

    • Arriero

      It’s not a problem of quantity, but of quality!

      There was a lot of regulation on mortgages prior to the financial crisis, but all that regulation was simply bad regulation. We could have a lot of good regulation; in fact, we do have a lot of good regulation.

      Germany has a more efficent and better-functioning Welfare system than the Spainish Welfare System. Yet the German Welfare System is far bigger than the Spanish one and from more or less the same size that the french.

      God, save us from these dangerous anarchists…

      Laissez-faire, laissez-faire… meanwhile someone is stealing your pocket.

      • TheAbaum

        Everybody that opposes your pollyanna view of government is not an anarchist.

        God save us from these state idolaters.

        • Arriero

          I’m just thinking about some good regulations on, for instance, marriage, abortion, stem cells, etc. that we may add to this extense register…

          • TheAbaum

            Sure, this time they’ll get it right. Just give them more power, money and time.

            As a general rule, I don’t take fire safety tips from pyromaniacs.

  • Prof_Override

    What an unadulterated pile of poo. Eight paragraphs of pretty reasonable build up and then a hyper-partisan, unsubstantiated piece of Fox crap. Look in the mirror, the hate monger and hate perpetuator is staring back at you.

  • Tony

    It is now substantiated. The e-mail that Ben Rhodes wrote on Saturday, detailing the strategy to blame the Benghazi attack on some unknown guy and his video in California, is almost word for word the answers that Mrs. Clinton gave on the news shows the next morning, knowing that it was a gross and absurd lie.

    But the Clintons have always been two-faced liars…. I too am weary of them and their whole crowd, and am weary of the (much more honorable, but not perhaps much better for the nation) Bush family.

    It’s a story I tell all the time, but when Grover Cleveland was out of office, basically without a party, because the Democrats had gone over to the Bryan wing, he was still regarded as a man of unimpeachable honesty. So when one of the big insurance companies in Connecticut was threatened with scandal and collapse, they asked Cleveland to examine their books and to declare to the public that they were solvent. He did, and he did. The company survived — because the people knew that nothing, absolutely nothing, could move Grover Cleveland not simply to lie, but to equivocate, to bend the truth, to put a pretty face on a thing to accomplish some “worthy” end.

  • Watosh

    I am not sure I understand Joseph’s comments regarding 9/11 but it seems like people can be divided into two groups, one group consists of conspiracy theorists, and the other group seems to be composed of coincidence theorists.

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