Government Power and Obama's 40 Thieves

Government power = government corruption.

Q: What's the difference between Jesus and Mr. Obama?

A: Jesus could put together a cabinet.

By hook or by crook, Mr. Obama has finally succeeded in cobbling together something resembling a Cabinet - though as the British have written, he seems to be having problems filling the second tier posts.  For example, at the Department of the Treasury, whose staffing you might think would be a matter of some urgency just at the moment, not one of the 17 deputy positions has been filled.

No wonder poor Tim Geithner is doing such a lousy job - his desk must look like the old stereotype of a Hollywood producer's, covered with dozens of phones all ringing at once.  Give the man a secretary, for goodness' sake!

Mr. Obama could perhaps use some more hooks, but he's got quite enough crooks already.  Name an Obama cabinet member and you've identified a tax cheat; more than a trend, it's become a stereotype.

Then things got worse: prosecutors raided the offices of not one but two Obama appointees, gathering evidence for ongoing investigations of felonious conduct.

You can think of this as the usual political corruption which is so endemic to large cities, and you'd be right.  You can consider this to exemplify and verify the "culture of corruption" among Democrats, and you'd be right there, too.

More than just the usual sleaze, however, the nature of the charges against ex-Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion, now director of the White House Office of Urban Affairs, shine a spotlight on a far more interesting and oft-overlooked fundamental problem.

Power Corrupts, and Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely

The New York Daily News summed up the situation brilliantly in its headline: "Buildings sprang up as donations rained down on Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion."  The report goes on to say:

The man who is President Obama's newly minted urban czar pocketed thousands of dollars in campaign cash from city developers whose projects he approved or funded with taxpayers' money, a Daily News probe found.

Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion often received contributions just before or after he sponsored money for projects or approved important zoning changes, records show.

Most donations were organized and well-timed.

It's really quite simple: Property owners wished to build on property they owned, but zoning regulations prohibited them from doing so.  Before they could legally begin the project, they had to get the permission of the political authority, none other than Mr. Carrion.  And, of course, if they could convince him to chip in taxpayer money, so much the better.

What's the simplest way to make a politician cooperative?  A nice fat check to their campaign fund, just as it's done in a banana republic.

If you don't have the money, you can render some other valuable service.  The check arrives, then that very day, in your fax appears the approval for a zoning waiver.  Government business at the speed of banking!

Almost without exception these donors defended Mr. Carrion as doing what's good for both the economy and people of the Bronx.  After all, does not construction employ people?  Is not even our President seeking out shovel-ready projects to begin work immediately?  What's the problem with a borough President clearing away obstacles to gainful employment and economic development?

That's the wrong question.  We should certainly be rooting out fraud and financial quid pro quos and putting bribe-takers and -payers in prison, and we should certainly be slashing through red tape.  Neither of these goals, laudable as they may be, will solve the underlying problem, which is: why is any of this the business of a politician at all?

This scandal was possible only because, many years ago, Americans were somehow convinced that government had a right to be able to tell you that you could not build on property you owned.

Private Property or Government Lease?

Why is it the business of the government what you do with your property?  Why do we accept the need to "kiss the ring" of the zoning board before putting up a building?

By definition, property ownership conveys the right to decide how it is to be used.  If you don't have that right, then in reality, it's not your property.

If you rent a house from a landlord, you would never dream of bulldozing the house and building an office building without asking the landlord's permission, because it's not yours.  Fundamentally, isn't this the exact same thing that zoning boards and local authorities are requiring?

In effect, you no longer own your property at all - you merely lease it from the government, to use as they think best.

In other, more honest jurisdictions, that's exactly how it works.  For peculiar historical reasons, every square inch of Hong Kong (save the Anglican cathedral) is owned by the government.  Property holders there don't pay real estate taxes on the land, as such, because they don't own the land; instead, they make lease payments and hold various rights for set periods that are clearly laid down in the terms of the lease.  It somewhat amounts to the same thing as our zoning, but at least they're upfront about where true ownership and authority lies.

The United States had a long tradition, since far before its founding, of honoring and respecting the rights of private property.  A major reason many of the original colonists and immigrants came here was precisely to own private property, instead of merely being tenants on their European lord's land.

The great Irish immigration was caused, in part, because the landlords felt they could make more money "enclosing" the land for sheep-herding than renting it to small farmers.  As each lease expired, the farmers were summarily booted off the land and left with nothing.  Tremendous social upheaval and eventually famine ensured; a founding American principle has been that society is better off if the majority of citizens can own and control their own homes.

What's going on in the Bronx, and indeed in most non-rural places throughout the country, is nothing resembling ownership.  If you cannot control what you do with your property, who can come onto it, and who can use it, how can you be properly said to own it?  If the government controls "permits" for any of those activities, the opportunity for graft is obvious.

The Exception Rule of Thumb

With government so involved in all aspects of our lives, and getting more so, how can we determine where it should be and where it should not?  Only the most extreme anarchist would argue that government has no right to control people's activities.  No true conservative would argue that.

There's a simple rule of thumb we can use to determine whether there should be a law and government control in a given area: should there be exceptions?  If not, then it's appropriate for government.  If there are ever exceptions... then it is not.

Consider the most fundamental role of government: defending people from violence.  Is there ever a time when the government should allow murderers or foreign invaders to roam free?  No, there is not.

All murderers should be arrested, prosecuted, and punished; all foreign armies should be repelled by force if necessary, without exception.  Obviously this may not always be possible, but the government should at least try or it's no government at all.

The same goes for all the traditional crimes: theft, fraud, burglary, and so on.  These things are always wrong, always to be stopped, always to be punished, and are legitimate concerns for government.

Once you get into the realm of regulation, it's another story.  The whole issue of government regulation involves negotiating with bureaucrats and persuading them to grant you "permission" to do something which is entirely in their gift.  They can allow it, or not, as they choose.  There is no absolute principle involved; it's up to their discretion.

It's precisely this discretion and lack of principle that gives the bureaucracy such power and has allowed government to control our lives to such an extent.  Why can this person build here, and not that person there, even though both own their own property and can afford to do so?

A government bureaucrat makes that decision - but on no legitimate grounds - and we're surprised when we constantly find corruption?  How could there not be?

If all that's standing in the way of your multi-million-dollar office building is some useless twit's meaningless signature, of course you're going to be tempted to procure that signature by any means necessary - and of course that selfsame twit, who's probably fully aware of his utter uselessness to productive society, will be most inclined to accommodate you for the right price.

Fleeing Temptation

America seems to be uncovering a shocking degree of corruption; in fact, nowadays people figure a politician or bureaucrat is more likely to be corrupt than not.  As far as it goes, it's fine to fight corruption by catching, convicting, and imprisoning thieves like, well, pretty much all of Obama's Chicago friends.

Wouldn't it be better for us, and them, to take away the power that they have which allows them to be corrupt, by returning it to where it belongs: the people?

Alas, all of Mr. Obama's plans lead precisely in the opposite direction, with government authority increasing over everything from banks to auto manufacturers.  Stand by for lots more stories like these.

Who'll be the first bureaucrat to take a bribe from someone wanting to sell some environmentally-correct doodad to GM?

Petrarch is a contributing editor for Scragged.  Read other articles by Petrarch or other articles on Bureaucracy.
Reader Comments
On the other hand I don't want my neighbor to start a garbage dump twenty feet from my front door.

In the end we are paying to lease the land from the government, they can take it from us at any time. They can and do tell people how well they have to keep their lawn, pools, and require fences around those pools. While we can argue to what extent the government has the right to tell us what to do with our land the idea of true land ownership disappeared with the idea of nobility.
March 13, 2009 3:56 PM
Most people would not put a garbage dump next to their neighbor, because they live next to him. Would you want to start a fight?

But for those that do, if it harms your property, there's always been tort law available to sue for damages. Worked pretty well for 200 years.

And if it doesn't harm your property - like, if they do a good job and keep it clean - why is it your business? It's not your property, it's theirs. And it's not the government's either, for all they'd like you to think it is (and clearly have convinced a lot of people!)
March 15, 2009 9:23 AM
It gets worse.

In State Pension Inquiry, a Scandal Snowballs
The inquiry into corruption at the New York State pension fund has ballooned into a sprawling investigation involving prominent players in New York's political and financial worlds.

It seems that pension fund managers who wanted a piece of the NY State pension fund paid to be able to visit the decision makers. Steven Rattner, who later became Mr. Obama's auto czar, seems to have worked for a firm which made such payments.
April 18, 2009 3:37 PM
More information trickles out on the :Culture of corruption." Ms. Pelosi couldn't remember being briefed when first asked, but it finally came out.

Pelosi Tells of a Briefing by Officials on Harman
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi acknowledged for the first time that she had been briefed "maybe three years ago" that Representative Jane Harman had been picked up on a wiretapped phone conversation.
April 23, 2009 9:05 AM
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