The case for corrupt politics ... and related musings

In “The Case for Corruption” Jonathan Rauch argues

I think he makes an excellent point. As American politics has moved toward transparency and grass-roots movements, it has become more dysfunctional.

In Asian countries like Thailand one sees other types of corruption. After an assault (or even murder), police often function as intermediary, negotiating compensation to the victim to avoid arrest (and taking a cut for themselves). This reduces court case-loads and avoids the need for higher police salaries! Similarly, building code variances are often “negotiated” at a low level. I do not generally support such “Asian-style” corruption, but I don’t think it’s as bad as many people assume.

Tangentially, it occurs to me that Asian-style corruption is very “libertarian”! Many libertarians believe that services should be operated privately, and that scarce common resources should have private rent collectors. Why not have police charge for their services? The rich would get better service than the poor, but that’s already the case.

(In the past I’ve thought of myself as a libertarian; this may be why I’m somewhat more tolerant of Thailand’s corruption than most Westerners. Similarly, I’ve supported programs like pollutant emissions trading which brings the value of free market to bear on hidden costs. This puts me at odds with post-rational libertarians whose philosophy is often best described as simple hatred of government.)

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Two decades ago, low-level and mid-level corruption was rampant in Thailand, but the country muddled along and even prospered. But now, one man has amassed huge wealth and political power and even organized what is, in effect, a private army. The country has entered a grave crisis with uncertain outcome.

Similarly, America a century ago had its Tammany Hall and so on, but the country prospered. Today most of us think of Tammany as more amusing than vile. Yet, just as one oligarch tried to operate Thailand as his own business, two brothers in America have more wealth than Bill Gates and his wife, and spend it on political power to amass further wealth; America is in a downward spiral.

If I believed in astrology, I might think Thailand and U.S.A. were born under the same stars! The similarities in political developments over the past two decades have been uncanny. As just one example, Thaksin became Premier two weeks after GWB became President; each had a predecessor from the Democratic Party.

Here we cross our fingers and hope the Thaksin Dynasty has finally been overthrown. I wish America has similar good luck with its Koch Brothers.

NETA: My confusing OP would be slightly less confusing if I had emphasized that I distinguish between two types of corruption:

  • endemic low-level corruption, with outcomes derived from healthy competition among lower-level entities, corrupt or not.
  • an oligarchy where a small number of hugely corrupt super-rich are pulling strings of the entire country.

It would be a gross oversimplification to say that either America or Thailand, in one epoch or another, is wholly described by one of these two modes of corruption. Yet they do help describe the trends I see.