March 1, 2001
favorite Western movie is Marlon Brandos One-Eyed
Jacks. The title refers to people who have a hidden side, like two
of the jacks in a deck of cards who are seen in profile. Late in the story
the hero, Rio (Brando), tells his former partner in crime, the apparently
respectable but treacherous Dad (Karl Malden),
Youre a one-eyed jack, Dad. I seen your other side.
Lately some one-eyed jacks have been
in the news. One is Robert Hanssen, the seemingly religious and patriotic
family man who worked for the FBI while selling secrets to the Russians
for many years. His friends, one of whom I know personally, were
astounded. They had never imagined that he, of all people, could betray his
Then there is the case of a former
president who, in his final hours in office, bestowed pardons in return for
what appears to have been cash. His fellow Democrats were amazed. They
had never suspected that he, of all people, was capable of corruption.
How did Bill Clinton manage to hide
his dark side from so many liberals and Democrats for so many years? The
mystery deepens when you consider that conservatives and Republicans
were well aware of it all along. They were tipped off by little things like
perjury, subornation, obstruction of justice, illegal campaign fundraising,
the selling of sensitive military data to potentially hostile foreign
powers, and an occasional rape. Their opponents, meanwhile, failed to pick
up these subtle clues until January 20 of this year. When the truth finally
dawned on them, their shock was indescribable.
Corruption is not only a perennial
problem in government; it may be intrinsic to government. We have never
found effective methods of uprooting it. In fact, some of our methods
backfire: the FBI does rigorous background checks on prospective
government employees, only to have its files used as a blackmail data
bank by a president and his staff (another of those telltale signs
Clintons supporters overlooked).
himself had to be elected to high office, because if he had been nominated
to, say, a cabinet position he could never have been confirmed. His
ill-concealed shady personal history would have forced the withdrawal of his
nomination. After a few days of lurid headlines, he would have been
forgotten. But having achieved the presidency, he was able to surround
himself with layers of people, in the executive branch and in the news
media, who were willing to overlook, or help conceal, everything. His final
mistake was to embarrass them when they no longer needed him.
Corruption takes countless forms. By
its very nature its extent is impossible to calculate. Every man who has
something to hide may be susceptible to blackmail (hence those FBI
background checks), and blackmail, being secret, is a constant hidden
factor. We can never know who really rules those who rule us. The
vulnerability of the individual is another reason for not investing too
much power in any single government official.
The same is true of bribery. It creates
a secret relation between a government official and a private interest.
The bribed official no longer works for the public, but the public never
knows it. In truth we have no way of knowing how much bribery,
blackmail, and espionage are occurring right now. But it would be unwise
to forget that these clandestine practices have always gone on under the
publics nose, no matter how many laws are passed and penalties
brandished against them. We are fated to be governed by one-eyed jacks.
Sometimes corruption thrives openly,
because it isnt widely recognized as corruption. Buying votes with
government money is now accepted practice in democracies, though it is
merely a generalized form of bribery in which politicians bribe voters. If
money really has the power to corrupt and it certainly does
the best remedy would not be the narrow campaign finance
reform now being touted, but the disfranchisement of anyone who
receives government funds. Voters can have conflicts of interest as surely
as candidates can.
The inevitability of corruption is one
of the strongest arguments for limited government. A dishonest private
merchant hurts only those who do business with him. A corrupt
government official hurts everyone, because everyone is forced to do
business with the government.
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