RALEIGH – The jury is out, quite literally, in the Kevin Geddings/Jim Black trial. But on a related matter, there is no need to wait for juror deliberation to render a verdict: the creation of North Carolina’s state lottery increased corruption in state government.
I say “increased” because corruption was already present in many parts of state government, unfortunately. I don’t mean just in a case-by-case sense. Many people equate “corruption” with instances of personal graft – employees stealing money, managers sticking their friends or family members in cushy jobs, that sort of thing. These examples don’t really capture the full meaning of the term.
“Corrupt” comes from a participle of the Latin verb corrupere, “to destroy.” The root word is rumpere, “to break,” as in to break a pot into shards. The word rupture also derives from that root. Corruption, then, has the connotation of a wall, barrier, or container being ruptured. Whatever was being divided, distinguished, or contained escapes. An irrigation system can be corrupted. So can a chemical emulsion, a metal alloy, or a personal relationship.
In social settings, corruption often involves activities or behaviors appropriate to one social institution intruding or being imported into another social institution for which they are ill-suited, self-defeating, or dangerous. In her brilliant discussion of the issue, the Socratic-style dialogue Systems of Survival, the late Jane Jacobs referred to this kind of corruption as “syndrome-hopping” – failing to chose the right individuals, incentives, or moral codes for the right situation, with unfortunate results.
In her book, Jacobs described two systems of survival, two ways that human beings interact to achieve common objectives. The first is the Guardian Syndrome, associated with governments, law enforcement, and the military. It is based on coercion. Its typical virtues include tradition, obedience, exclusivity, honor, vengeance, and “deceive for the sake of the task.” The second is the Commercial Syndrome, associated with merchants and markets. It is based on trade. Its virtues include invention, thrift, competition, collaboration, honesty, and “dissent for the sake of the task.”
To this division of human institutions into raiders and traders, I would add a third: the Charitable Syndrome. Call it the crusaders if you wish to maintain the rhyme. It shuns both force and trading. Its virtues are idealism, enlightenment, morality, sacrifice, universality, and faith. It functions when we “donate for the sake of the task.”
Corruption, Jacobs argues, occurs when the boundaries between these systems of survival break down. When businesses take on Guardian characteristics, we call that organized crime. When Guardians take on Commercial characteristics – say, when we compensate police officers on the basis of how much revenue they generate in tickets, rather than in enhancing safety, or when politicians peddle their access for bribes and kickbacks – we call it government corruption.
A phrase that always bugged me is the often-repeated political promise to “run government like a business.” It cannot be. It should not be. Governments aren’t profit seekers. They must be organized and led on different principles, due to their status as a legitimate user of violence or threat of violence to achieve political ends.
In the case of government lotteries, as in so many public-sector programs, we are inducing public officials to hop syndromes. In the lottery case, they are being tasked with operating a commercial gambling enterprise. In the case of most welfare programs, they are being tasked with operating a charitable enterprise. Government – coercive, honor-bound, traditional, even deceitful for the sake of the task (think undercover cops or military operations) – should not be engaged in these tasks.
When they are, corruption ensues. Politicians take money from interested parties, and listen to back-channel approaches from potential vendors. They take money forcibly from some to give to others who have not earned it, thus disrupting the critical, personal, often faith-based relationship between charitable giver and receiver.
Geddings may be found not guilty of fraud. But he and others who worked to enact a lottery in North Carolina are guilty of something else: corrupting our government just a little more than it already was. It’s not a crime. It’s just a shame.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.