A few thoughts on corruption and neocon economics

As Goddess of the Market reminds me, one of the key features of Atlas Shrugged dystopia is “corrupt businessmen” who buy favors from the government.

Corruption in these neocon philosophies has always struck me as interesting because they largely ignore it. Some of it is the inevitable distancing from reality that goes along with almost any philosophical endeavor. But despite the significance of corruption to real economics, as far as I know there is no theory of corruption.

So Objectivism doesn’t actually explain why a businessman would become “corrupt” other than personal venality . . . even though selfishness is a virtue.  Some might see this as a contradiction.  I certainly do.

The practical explanations for corruption are straightforward. People become corrupt (in the sense that they cheat on contracts or pay off government officials) to make money, to gain status, and acquire power.

Why it’s okay to make money, get status, and possess power within the boundaries of neocon economics, but not simply to lie and cheat to get there isn’t straightforward at all. After all, the normal method is to make a utilitarian argument: corruption is bad for society, thus it is forbidden. However, neocon philosophies aren’t allowed to propose that kind of collectivism. The real question, for them, is “how is it bad for the individual?”

That runs smack into the problem of individualism, itself. What is good for the individual is good for the individual, as defined by the individual. Clearly, paying off a government official is good for the individual who profits from the corruption. If it isn’t good for the next person? That is of no more interest to a neocon egoist individualist than if I dam up a river flowing through my property that causes famine downstream. It’s my river as it passes through my property, and I can do with it as I please.

It is a tension that Rand seeks to bridge with the idea of “natural rights”. One cannot find, however, these natural rights in nature. From the earliest days, humans killed each other to secure their resources. You can’t find natural rights in the animal kingdom, either, since plants and animals destroy each other, constantly, for their own benefit, often even if it destroys other members of their species.  Much of nature is red in tooth and claw.

No, no, “natural rights” are something that arises only with human intelligence and independent of actual human natural history and behavior. No one can arrive at natural rights without taking an intellectually tortured road, or with mere assertion (which is Rand’s technique – just assert natural rights exist loudly and repeatedly, perhaps as a spell to call them into existence out of the ether).

The question of corruption in neocon societies will, no doubt, continue to fascinate me – both in how they construct their philosophy to deal with the ugly realities of violence and corruption, and in the actual implementation of policies arising from their philosophies as they are found to engender corruption.

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