Friday, January 17, 2014

Corruption, Then and Now

Listened to an instructive faculty lunch talk yesterday about "corruption" in the law of insider trading. A core point that there are certain norms of behavior in  the exercise of office, the violation of which we regard as (not simply wrong but) "corrupt," some kind of fundamental deficiency.  En route, the speaker gave us a screen shot of text from the great George Washington Plunkett, once a wheel horse of Tammany Hall--actually, not all that important as a political leader, but memorable because he unburdened his mind to a willing listener, and so we have him to thank for the most vivid and (at least) entertaining defense of old-style ward politics.

Here's a sample of Plunkett (though to be honest, I'm not certain this is exactly what the speaker was showing us--I wasn't taking notes):
I see my opportunity and I take it. I go to that place and I buy up all the land I can in the neighborhood. Then the board of this or that makes its plan public, and there is a rush to get my land, which nobody cared particular for before. 
Ain’t it perfectly honest to charge a good price and make a profit on my investment and foresight? Of course, it is. Well, that’s honest graft. Or supposin‘ it’s a new bridge they’re goin’ to build. I get tipped off and I buy as much property as I can that has to be taken for approaches. I sell at my own price later on and drop some more money in the bank. 
Wouldn’t you? It’s just like lookin‘ ahead in Wall Street or in the coffee or cotton market. It’s honest graft, and I’m lookin’ for it every day in the year. I will tell you frankly that I’ve got a good lot of it, too.
Link.  Well, yes.  Not precisely what we regard as the norm of good behavior today.  What intrigues me at the moment, though, is not the substance but the texture.  Plunkett  clearly wants to explain or justify himself.  Yet one can't escape the notion that he's not entirely happy with his own defense--that he knows he isn't likely to sell it to his audience and, more important, maybe not even to himself.

 Which me to thinking. There was a time (not so?) when a proto-Plunkett might have felt no need to justify himself--might have taken it for granted that the purpose of holding public office was to line his private pockets--that anyone who, given the chance, forbore to enrich himself at the public expense, was just a fool?   There was a time (yes?) when people actually bought and sold the office for the explicit purpose in trafficking in its opportunities for personal gain?

What I'd like to know is--when did that attitude change?   When and how did we develop a norm of public duty that enjoins the Punkettian protocol?  And don't tell me "we're not there yet." Of course we have "corrupt" (heh!) politicians (though I suspect it's  bit strong to ring in the number at 100 percent).  But they try to conceal it--and not just because they might go to jail.  They try to conceal i because they "know" it is wrong--that not even the Plunkett defense will pass the giggle test?

I'm sure "there's a literature" as they say down at the faculty club.  Just confessing my ignorance, that's all.

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