The textbook definition of corruption goes something like this: Person X wants a favor from Person Y, who is in a position of power; instead of going through official channels to get it, though, X approaches Y with an offer of quid-pro-quo compensation – in exchange for that favor, Y will receive something from X. This kind of quid-pro-quo trading of favors has been rampant in most societies throughout history. It’s also (usually) been viewed with disfavor, and frequently been declared (on paper, at least) illegal. Americans like to think of the US as being relatively uncorrupt, but we’ve had our share of this kind of thing, too, historically.
The heart of the problem with corruption in America today isn’t the quid-pro-quo system, where politicians and bureaucrats are paid big piles of money to do what a private interest wants. (That does still happen, but it’s illegal and fairly easy to prosecute when it’s discovered.) Rather, the problem is that slightly more circuitous and indirect forms of corruption have been developed and made completely legal, and have therefore become the normal way of doing business in all levels and parts of government.
Politicians voted for the rules that make these schemes work and many of them have become very rich as a result. They have no incentive to change the rules. Meanwhile businesses and interest groups have also found corruption to be hugely profitable. By one widely respected analysis, lobbying Congress for a special interest tax exemption, favorable regulation, or subsidy is the single most profitable investment a company or industry can make. As a result, vast amounts of money are now being poured into the game of legalized stealing from the public.
Corruption these days lies in the ways that moneyed interests have found to control governmental officials’ careers, with promises to help them keep their positions, threats to remove them from power, or offers to help them seriously advance their careers after they leave government. All of this happens without any outright quid-pro-quo agreement, and completely within the letter of the deliberately emasculated law.
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