- - Monday, May 4, 2015



By Jay Cost

Encounter Books, $27.99, 408 pages

George Washington Plunkitt, a functionary in the tentacular Tammany Hall machine of Gilded Age New York, wrote in the 19th century about his approach to “honest graft” in politics: “I seen my opportunities, and I took ‘em.” Plunkitt’s approach, so colloquially expressed, didn’t depend on blackmail or bribes. Rather, Plunkitt knew that legislators’ proximity to the various organs of government present access to actionable, profitable information. In Plunkitt’s time, he would buy up a piece of swampland that was destined to be turned into a park. When the city council decided that Plunkitt’s parcel was indispensable to the completion of the park, he would jack up the price of the land, and net a handsome profit.

Plunkitt’s style of corruption is now illegal, but the similar endurance of unethical yet legal profiteering from government persists today. This is Weekly Standard writer Jay Cost’s contention in his new book “A Republic No More.” Observing a political culture that is “corrupt without being criminal,” Mr. Cost exhaustively documents the way the American political system, in a repudiation of Madison’s vision for democracy, has fallen prey to a culture of self-interest that distributes resources “in ways that run contrary to the public interest.”

Before examining Mr. Cost’s views more closely, it is important to note that this book is not a pleasurable read. It will probably appeal only to academics, and its contributions to political scholarship will far outlive any trace of fun that might be found inside. A whole chapter is devoted to farm subsidies, another, Medicare. There is plenty of material relevant to contemporary political debate, but it comes after 150 pages of dusty discussion of topics such as the Pendleton Civil Service Act and the political philosophy of Woodrow Wilson. Anyone hoping for a breezy, anecdotal tour of American history will find himself let down by what is much closer to an academic dissertation than a mass-market nonfiction book.

That’s not to say that Mr. Cost’s book is unimportant. For one thing, it helps us understand some of the more intense political debates of our time. Take for instance the cleavage between the “establishment” and “grass-roots” wings of the Republican Party. Part of the divide is bound up in differences of opinion on issues of consequence to few Americans, such as the existence of corporate welfare in the form of the Export-Import Bank, subsidies flowing to the sugar industry, or letting the American Medical Association write the reimbursement rates for Medicare Part B. Propping up industries with taxpayer dollars or letting corporate interests dictate legislation, essentially in exchange for campaign contributions, constitutes a legal form of corruption, in which self-interest stays one step ahead of the law. Usage of taxpayer dollars to preserve programs of questionable public benefit also undermines the Founders’ idea of limited government.

Perhaps the most damning example of corruption is the almost universal influence in Congress that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac enjoyed before the housing market collapsed in 2007. Mr. Cost begins his book with a quote from the former CEO of Fannie, in a 1999 meeting of shareholders, saying, “We manage our political risk with the same intensity that we manage our credit and interest rate risks.” To the layman, this is shorthand for “throwing money at legislators so they don’t impose profit-killing regulations on us.” The reverberations of this policy is still felt in the balance sheets of banks and the retirement accounts of ordinary Americans.

Unfortunately, Mr. Cost’s great prescription for fixing the problems at hand rely on little more than appeals to the better angels of Republican and Democrat nature, and “strong leadership from certain quarters of both sides.” Unfortunately, Congress has never proved able to regulate its own appetite for government subsidies to flow to businesses. Moreover, in the minds of most Americans the issue of political corruption is far subordinate to issues like the strength of the economy or the affordability of a college education. If Mr. Cost proves anything in his book, it is that Congress will always respond to incentives. Without the threat of ejection from power on the national legislature as an inducement to reform, we could truly be facing a republic no more.

David Wilezol is the co-author, with William Bennett, of “Is College Worth It?” (Thomas Nelson, 2013).

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