I know something about bribery. When I was a teenager, my dad was in the construction business in Chicago. So, as soon as I got my driver’s license (at 16), I was sent out delivering bribes. That’s just the way things were done, and my dad let me drive a fancy car (with an FM radio!) to make the deliveries.
I delivered leather coats to wives, envelopes to government offices, other envelopes to politicians at their fundraisers, booze to lots of people, and in one case, the answers to the state driver’s exam to a guy in… um… a different line of work.
I extricated myself from these chores fairly quickly. Aside from the cool car, it made me uncomfortable. These escapades did, however, give me a fairly good understanding of how bribery in America works.
Big League Bribery
Most of the bribery I did as a kid was fairly mundane – minor league stuff. The one exception was the political fundraiser. That was big league bribery. Following explicit orders, I dressed up and stood in a greeting line for as long as it took to come face to face with the politician. I handed him the envelope and told him precisely who it was from. I shook his hand and he told me to please enjoy the buffet. I thanked him, then stepped away.
This was done in a gala ballroom, with hundreds of people in the meet-and-greet line. Almost every man was in a suit, and the women were in fancy dresses. Everything was pristine. That’s the way bribery is done in the big leagues.
I know there are people who will say, “Campaign donations are legal, so they can’t be considered bribery,” but I know precisely why all these people were standing in line to give the politician money. I lived this for a period of time and watched it for a much longer period of time. All of these people wanted something and expected to get it in return for their “donation.”
“Legal” or not, in honest words this is called bribery. Approved bribery, polished bribery, but bribery just the same.
It’s Big Business
The national election of 2012 brought in over six billion dollars of donations, and that was just for a few hundred races. I can’t find figures on all the state and local elections, but since they include many thousands of races, I have to assume that they involve even larger amounts of money.
So, I think it’s probably safe to say that a minimum of twelve billion dollars are spent as campaign contributions each year. That’s a fairly large business, and the vast majority of it – everything beyond the “hopeful granny” money – is donated on a quid pro quo basis. People donate so they can get more back.
But this is only part of the whole. Many more billions are given to politicians each year in back-door payoffs. These bribes come in forms like these:
- Safe government jobs for friends and family.
- Sweetheart real estate deals: properties sold to the politician for far less than they are worth, with a loan just waiting for their signature.
- A swimming pool for their yard, after giving a construction project to the right person.
- Free dinners and hookers.
- Envelopes of cash to local officials in return for building permits, liquor licenses, etc.
- Ownership shares of local businesses.
Not only could I add to this list, but all of these are real examples, from my personal observations. And they include American politicians in the highest offices.
Measuring Status Inside Government
Have you ever noticed that the resumes of government managers always tell you how many millions (or billions) of dollars their office handled every year? (“Our department had an annual budget of $400 million.”) That’s how things are measured in capital cities.
Interestingly enough, that’s also how bribes are doled out. The department that handles the most money can skim off the most to you. For example, the best donations in the US House of Representatives always went to the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. Why? Because that committee put together the budget for the whole US government. Own some of that man, and you can dip your hand into the money stream at the headwaters.
And so it goes, throughout the entire government structure. Those who control the money sell access, and buyers are easy to find.
The treasures of a continent flow through Washington DC. Where else would we expect the thieves to be gathered?
But DC is not rustic like Chicago; it’s a well-polished town. The deals look pretty and they are sanctified by law. But if it weren’t for the sale of government favors, DC would be a fraction of its glittering self.
Visit some time and hang out for a while on K Street. Most of the lobbyists moved to the suburbs years ago, but there is still enough activity to give you a feel for what goes on. Then spend a few days at Tyson’s Corner Center around lunchtime. You’ll see lots of very fine clothing and very fine deals being handled in pristine ways. It’s easy to miss the fact that lobbying is little more than bribery in tailored suits.
I leave you with a quote from Frederick Bastiat :
When plunder becomes a way of life for a group of men living together in society, they create for themselves in the course of time a legal system that authorizes it and a moral code that glorifies it.
The old Frenchman nailed it.