Money & Democracy

by | December 20, 2011

Money can be a wonderful thing. It can provide nice things for us and for our loved ones. It can give us a better standard of living. But it can also buy legal clout and political power and that’s where democracies have failed.

The whole idea of democracy is to keep government power out of the control of a privileged few. In the past there were good monarchies, but many were unjust, creating luxurious lives for the nobility on the backs of the poor and uneducated. The same could be said of many dictatorships (witness the recent history of Iraq, Libya, North Korea) and oligarchies (Russia). Some undemocratic governments have actually done an enviable job of pulling their people out of poverty even though the distribution of income greatly favored the political elite and political freedom suffered (witness China).

But Western democracies have similar problems. Senior government officials have been caught benefiting financially from helping those with enough money to bribe them (whether explicitly or implicitly). Wealthy business owners use their financial muscle to coerce politicians and government officials into doing their bidding. Significant government policies are often decided on the basis of the financial clout of special interest groups rather than their overall merit. One preposterous policy is the US subsidy of corn ethanol, a policy which artificially inflates the price of corn for food and feed and which is near universally acknowledged as one of the most inefficient ways to produce ethanol (sugar cane being one of the best).

So what is to be done? Most advanced democracies already have laws regarding official bribe-taking but they are imposed rarely and without vigor. It is not, after all, in the interests of prosecutors (themselves public servants and subject to similar laws) to prosecute powerful interests. Democracy needs to be protected in a significant way against the manipulation of government operations. Those in a position of entrusted power need to be treated differently from the common citizen. A policeman who commits murder must suffer a significantly worst fate than an ordinary citizen because of the trust and power he holds by virtue of his position. Equally, a politician needs to be severely punished for breaking the law. It may be reasonable that, for taking a bribe to award a contract to a wealthy industrialist, a politician might have to spend the rest of his life in jail. It must be a severe punishment, over and above what would be a applied to an ordinary citizen. And the industrialist given the bribe but himself also be severely punished, though perhaps not as severely as the politician.

And though these punishments would be determined from the law, the general thrust of such laws must be spelled out in a well crafted constitution. Voluntarily becoming part of the government means accepting the responsibility and consequences of having power of fellow citizens.

Legal shenanigans must be treated similarly. Trying to influence a jury or a judge must be met with the most severe of penalties. And the ability to escape punishment through the use of expensive legal help must be minimized. Everyone should be equal under the law and that just isn’t the case today. Expensive lawyers simply do better than public defenders. How to do best accomplish this fairness may be a difficult problem but it is an important one, lest citizens lose respect (as many of us have) for the law. This goes for all the details of the legal process. A wealthy defendant will be able to afford, in most cases, the bail set out for him while a poor defendant may not. Spending time in jail awaiting a trial should not be a punishment for being poor, since the defendant is innocent until proved guilty. Furthermore, trials need to be provided in a reasonable time period. Already we are seeing desperately long trial wait times in some Western countries. Defendants must be constitutionally protected against undue wait times. Speedy justice is right for everyone.

This discussion may seem in many ways contradictory but it is not. On the one hand, we argue for harsher punishments against civil servants and politicians. On the other hand, we argue for more rights for defendants. But anyone accused of a crime, whether politician or ordinary person, needs to be assured of fair and speedy justice under the law. Otherwise, respect for the law will evaporate and as it seems to be evaporating now.

Hold those with significant power and responsibility, whether through money or government power, more accountable. Protect those who have been indicted but not convicted from unfair treatment. Sounds simple but we’re not doing it.

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