Corruption is a plague on civil society

When we think about corruption, which is the abuse of power by politicians and bureaucrats for personal gain, we envision the gritty politics in older Midwestern or East Coast cities. In Richard J. Daley’s Chicago and William “Boss” Tweed’s New York City, powerful mayors kept order, but jobs and money flowed through a patronage system. We don’t usually think about California, which grew rapidly largely after the demise of those political machines.

Yet in recent years, corruption scandals have plagued our state. Today’s section reviews a number of them and tries to pinpoint causes and solutions. We’ve seen our share of the old-school variety. For instance, former Los Angeles Councilmember Jose Huizar pleaded guilty to taking $1.5-million in bribes from developers. That sordid tale seems right from the movies, with a Huizar aide allegedly picking up literal boxes of cash.

And who can forget former Leland Yee, a top-ranking Democratic state senator and noted gun-control advocate, who received a five-year prison term in 2016 after pleading guilty to racketeering and an arms-trafficking conspiracy involving a Chinatown gang figure? At the time, two other leading senators were under indictment – one for voter-fraud and another on bribery related charges.

In decidedly not Chicago-ish Orange County, the recent scandal involving former Anaheim Mayor Harry Sidhu is an eye-opener. Following Angel’s stadium sale negotiations, the FBI accused Sidhu of providing the team with confidential information as he allegedly sought contributions. Sidhu denies the allegations, but the scandal seems reflective of a City Hall culture dominated by a “cabal” of lobbyists representing Resort Area interests.

California also has endured many legal “corruption” scandals, as public-employee unions have exerted their political power at the state and local levels to achieve absurdly generous compensation packages and thwart governmental reform. In one column, we tie the problem to an overly large government that doles out billions of dollars in cash and contracts, typically in a legal but corrosive manner.

So why is corruption such a problem? For starters, it appears to be a growing challenge. In 2021, a Transparency International report found that corruption in the United States was at its worst level in a decade. The group blamed the problem in part on insufficient oversight of pandemic-related spending, which reinforces our point that too much government spending leads to corrupt outcomes.

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Corruption – of the illegal and legal variety – undermines the public’s faith in its institutions. It creates the sense that the system is rigged and an average citizen can’t get a fair shake. In a self-governing society, people need to have the confidence their dealings with, say, police officers, tax collectors and regulators are based on a set of fairly applied rules rather than a system of graft or political ties.

“In a country with high corruption levels, the population has no confidence in their politicians and civil servants,” explained a 2019 article in The Conversation. “With suspicion and even fears of elites, the population can’t invest itself in voting, being involved in the civil society or participating to the public debates. As the result, the culture of democracy begins to crumble.”

Corruption is a plague that undermines our freedoms. The best way to combat it is through transparency, which is why we believe the issue merits today’s extensive coverage.

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