by John F. Di Leo
Racing to the Finish Line
Racetracks exist at the pleasure of the state. As highly regulated businesses, they need the blessing of the state to set up shop, to open for business, to continue from year to year. If they want to hold more races per day than they used to, or to be open more days per week, or more weeks per year, they need the permission of the state. And, as in most states, the Illinois gaming commission is run, for the most part, by the governor.
In 1969, Governor Otto Kerner (D, The Stables) was discovered to have accepted bribes (in the form of preferred stock!) from a racetrack or two, in exchange for granting the racetrack’s special requests (approving a favorable racing schedule, planning an extra highway exit or two to route consumer traffic toward the track, etc.). The wheels of justice turn slowly, but Governor Kerner was eventually convicted, and did time in federal prison as a result.
To the Victors go the Spoils
Government agencies need employees. It takes people to populate a driver’s license facility, a tollbooth, a service center. Lots of people. And the elected office holder gets to appoint those people, in the time-honored tradition of President Andrew Jackson (D, The Hermitage).
In 2006, Governor George Ryan (R, I-355) was convicted of having placed some extra burdens on all those patronage employees, burdens in addition to their usual demanding duties of making people stand in agonizingly long lines to get a picture taken or a small card laminated. It was proven to the jury that he – like oodles of other politicians in similar roles all over the country – had often made political fundraising a condition of state employment, and had also used some of those political coffers as something of a personal piggy bank. To make an example of him, Governor Ryan too did time in federal prison as a result.
Just Planning for my Family’s Future…
Governors make many decisions. They approve or deny applications for grants; they appoint people to high office; they run the executive branch of a state.
But the role of governor is also something of an end-of-the-line role. Once you’ve been governor, you can’t run for a lower office like state rep or state senate; it would be peculiar. So unless you’re electable to the Senate or you merit a federal cabinet appointment or an impressive job as president of a university, you might think your post-governorship career options rather limited. And you just might worry about the days ahead, especially if you’re relatively young.
In 2011, Governor Rod Blagojevich (D, Oxxford) was convicted of having been so worried of an unemployable future and an inability to provide for his wife and daughter (despite an incredible resume of elected office, great connections, and two pensions), that he tried to collect money on the side from all those decisions that he did all day. Appointing people to commissions, filling an unexpired US Senate seat, even the act of forwarding federal grant checks to a children’s hospital… these tasks kept him busy at the office day after day; he felt that he ought to be able to collect a “facilitation fee” at least. For all these efforts, he’ll spend nearly fourteen years in the medium-security federal prison in Oxford, Wisconsin. Oh, what a difference the number of “x”s makes. Two means a beautiful pin-striped suit in black or navy, and one means wearing a much less dashing orange.
“Ask Not the Reason Why”
Illinoisans are getting tired of our governors going to jail. With four of them donning the orange jumpsuit in forty years (though Dan Walker really shouldn’t count, since his conviction was unrelated to his tenure as governor), Illinoisans just can’t decide whether to feel stupid for electing so many crooks or to feel proud for sending the crooks to jail afterward.
Most often, where we go wrong is in asking why. We think it’s a matter of geography. “He’s from Chicago, ya know.” As if that explains it. As if it’s just in the water here. “Grow up drinking Lake Michigan water; you’re sure to become a crooked pol. What else is there?”
Such a pessimistic, almost nihilistic, attitude is almost understandable. A middle-aged Chicagoan can gauge the seasons of his life by which federal corruption trials were going on at the time, from Greylord to Silver Shovel to Hired Truck. It’s understandable if we assume that it’s just geography, that if we just move to Indiana or Wisconsin or Minnesota we’ll finally be free of the embarrassment of a Chicago Machine and a Springfield Combine… and the crushing embedded corruption tax that results from such an environment.
But it’s NOT geography. It’s not where, or who, or when. It’s about a four-legged beast with fangs and claws that Thomas Hobbes first told us about, way back in 1651. Exactly five quarter-centuries before Adam Smith defined the brilliance of the free market, Thomas Hobbes first taught us about the beast that lives in state and national capitals all over the world… though in his day, it wasn’t such a beast. In the seventeenth century, in fact, it still seemed possible that it could be tame.
Perhaps Hobbes didn’t know what would happen when government outgrew its bonds, but he sure picked the right name. In selecting the word “leviathan”, he was tying his creature to the monsters of antiquity, described in the Bible as an utterly destructive force, malevolent and omnivorous. No government was so overgrown or evil in his day, but he was a prescient writer.
Despite the birth of this nation in the small government philosophy of the enlightenment, Marxist-Leninism took hold in the 20th century, gradually growing the national bureaucracy far beyond the boundaries of the Constitution, and this disease of governmental gigantism has spread to states, counties, cities, even villages.
As we survey our nation today, we see a federal government that gets to decide whether to award half-billion dollar contracts to green energy companies – a state government that gets to serve as a pass-through for federal funds earmarked for hospitals – officials who can hire and fire at will the volunteers and donors who elected them to office, both high and low.
Our Founding Fathers envisioned a tiny government enabling the free people of a sprawling nation. The federal city was intended to ensure that the people were free, and that the states got along – in modern terms, that I-90 could carry passenger cars and trucks alike from coast to coast, that Illinois would not charge an import duty on Vermont maple syrup or Iowa corn or Kentucky whiskey. The federal city was intended to print stable currency and manage a strong enough defense that nobody would invade our borders or attack our merchant ships abroad. And the federal departments of Treasury, State, and Justice numbered their employees in the dozens – all together!
But today’s immense bureaucracy means that government officials have hundreds, even thousands, of appointments to make in their terms. They have services to perform, permits to grant, forms to stamp, requests to authorize. They can decide whether a landowner can build on his own land or not. They can decide whether a plumbing supply factory can manufacture a showerhead or not, whether a light-bulb factory can continue making light-bulbs, whether a car dealership can continue to sell cars.
When the government executive chooses to say yes, he can collect bribes (or contributions, or donations, or favors), as our three Illinois governors have done. And when the government executive chooses to say no, he can plunge the country into a recession, as our current president has done.
The problem is that our government is simply too big. The promise of power attracts the worst sort of politicians, from dangerous tinkerers to petty acquisitive graspers.
Yes, we would have fewer such problems if we elected more angels to government, but they’re few and far between. As Publius warned us, if men were angels, no government would be needed. To count on ceasing the election of criminals is a fool’s errand; the goal is simple too desirable for people with an eye on this particular prize.
If we really want to end the corruption, both legal and illegal (and the legal kind is actually far more destructive to our economy), there’s only one solution. We must return to the size of government that our Framers intended for us.
With small government, a government job is attractive only to the honorable public servant. The more power and size you grant your government, the more villains you’re bound to see listed on the ballot, regardless of how long a sentence you give to the miniscule minority of them who eventually make it to trial.
Copyright 2011 John F. Di Leo
John F. Di Leo is a Chicago-based Customs broker and international trade compliance lecturer. Born in Chicago, he moved to the suburbs as soon as he could crawl, and his parents kept him far from the Machine. A former precinct committeeman in Lake County, a precinct captain in Cook, and GOP County Chairman in Milwaukee County, he has now been a recovering politician for over fourteen years (but as with any addiction, you’re never really totally cured).
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