Corruption in America: From Benjamin Franklin’s Snuff Box to Citizen’s United, by Zephyr Teachout (Harvard University Press, 384 pp., $29.95)

Myopia is the characteristic fault of campaign-finance reformers. Viewing everything as a question of “money in politics,” they mistake effects for causes and problems for crises. Zephyr Teachout owes her career to this distorted perspective. Challenging New York governor Andrew Cuomo from the left in this year’s Democratic primary, the 43-year-old Fordham law professor ran a symbolic campaign devoid of ideas. She deserved to lose substantially and did, but still won high praise from the New York Times for her “refreshing seriousness” on ethics reform, her signature theme. Other news outlets are now seeking her advice on how best to cover Albany.

Teachout’s new book explores the history of political corruption in the United States. Whereas many liberals view American history as one long nightmare from which we only began to awake around 1964, Teachout attempts to make a conservative argument for campaign-finance reform. She believes that, in Citizens United and related jurisprudence, today’s self-styled Supreme Court originalists betrayed the Founding—a core aspect of which, she maintains, was an anti-corruption focus that extended beyond preventing the “quid pro quo” exchange of influence for cash. “Corruption, in the American tradition, does not just include blatant bribes and theft from the public till,” Teachout writes, “but encompasses many situations where politicians and public institutions serve private interests at the public’s expense.” Teachout’s Framers made clean government central to their constitutional vision. In eighteenth-century European monarchies and aristocracies, it was de rigueur for the privileged to make use of governmental powers for their own benefit. But, Teachout argues, America had more in common with the virtue politics of ancient Greek and Roman republics than with the patronage-based politics of France or England. The “framers’ virtue focus,” she claims, created a system intolerant of corruption. “Other political traditions focus on the more material problems of stability, anarchy, inequality, or violence,” she writes. “The American one focuses on the virtues of love for the public and the dangers of unrestrained self-interest.”

You miss a lot, though, when you interpret American history as one long struggle against corruption. The problems begin with Teachout’s take on the Founding, a subject on which she is out of her depth. Reading this book, one gathers that separation of powers, federalism, and the division of responsibilities over war and the budget are—at best—equal in importance to the Constitution’s ban on officials’ accepting gifts from foreign powers (Article I, Section 9). The Framers certainly valued integrity, but it’s misleading for Teachout to claim that the most distinct feature of the American system is an anti-corruption agenda. During the debate over ratification, the group that expressed the most sincere admiration for antiquity’s sturdy republican virtues were the Anti-Federalists—those who opposed the Constitution. Hamilton and Madison believed that political orders that relied on virtue tended to be volatile and short-lived. They devised an arrangement that not only tolerated self-interestedness but harnessed its energies. Scholars such as Paul Rahe and Thomas Pangle have characterized this approach as “modern republicanism.” Teachout cannot resolve the contradiction between her view that “the traditional American approach makes it government’s job to temper egocentrism in the public sphere” and Federalist 51’s sober discussion of how “[a]mbition must be made to counteract ambition.”

Failing to distinguish between the Framers’ virtue and their views on the political significance of virtue, many conservative scholars share Teachout’s misunderstanding of the Founding. She tries to make Hamilton, Franklin, and Madison into good-government advocates, or goo-goos, after the fashion of Ida Tarbell, President Theodore Roosevelt, and other Progressives, her true political forebears. Peaking in the early twentieth century, the Progressive movement did much to eliminate America’s then world-renowned reputation for government sleaze. But thanks to their moralism, the Progressives also gave us Prohibition and the beginnings of a massive administrative state. Teachout’s history fails to consider the vast literature on the unintended consequences of good-government reform.

Teachout marshals some evidence to support her contention that there really was a golden age of good government in America. From roughly 1830 to 1930, for instance, paid lobbying was “treated as a civic wrong in the eyes of the law.” Courts frequently found lobbying contracts to be unenforceable, because “a citizen did not have a personal right to pay someone else to press his or her legislative agenda.” Elsewhere, however, Teachout undermines her thesis. She shows how rare prosecutions of bribery and extortion were throughout the nineteenth century, and she devotes a whole chapter to Fletcher v. Peck (1810), in which Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall refused to nullify legislation passed under corrupt circumstances. Marshall cast doubt on courts’ ability to determine legislators’ precise motivations, foreshadowing similar arguments, Teachout notes, made by the modern Roberts court—arguments that she elsewhere describes as historically uninformed.

Teachout’s meandering tour of earlier legal eras’ approaches to bribery, extortion, lobbying, and campaign finance serves mostly to make clear that addressing corruption has always been complicated. Aggressive attempts to eradicate special-interest influence inevitably conflict with foundational principles such as liberty and the rule of law. Some would conclude, then, that courts should not grant wide latitude to partisan legislatures seeking to define “corruption.” Instead, Teachout argues that it is the Roberts court that has been out of line in reining in such legislative latitude.

Teachout consistently misses the broader context. These days, both sides go all-out each election cycle pursuing incremental gains that often get reversed the next time around. Back when there were more conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans, each election seemed less “critical.” Greater ideological purity within the two parties, which began to develop long before Citizens United, now creates the possibility that everything could change with one midterm. The sense of constantly high stakes animates the Koch brothers, Tom Steyer, and other outside groups, whose spending Citizens United helped unleash. But like so many liberal legal scholars, Teachout insists on placing exclusive blame on the Supreme Court for everything that’s wrong with politics today.

Current campaign-finance trends are the inevitable price of big government. Business interests will demand to be heard as long as higher taxes and ever-more intrusive regulation remain plausible prospects. Teachout concludes by calling for stronger antitrust laws. For consistency’s sake, she should have recommended dismantling big government as well as big business. If her true grievance is with capitalism, she should have written a different book.

Photo by Michael Johnson/via Flickr


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