No man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause, because his interest would certainly bias his judgment, and, not improbably, corrupt his integrity. With equal, nay with greater reason, a body of men are unfit to be both judges and parties at the same time; yet what are many of the most important acts of legislation, but so many judicial determinations, not indeed concerning the rights of single persons, but concerning the rights of large bodies of citizens? And what are the different classes of legislators but advocates and parties to the causes which they determine? Is a law proposed concerning private debts? It is a question to which the creditors are parties on one side and the debtors on the other. Justice ought to hold the balance between them. Yet the parties are, and must be, themselves the judges; and the most numerous party, or, in other words, the most powerful faction must be expected to prevail. Shall domestic manufactures be encouraged, and in what degree, by restrictions on foreign manufactures? are questions which would be differently decided by the landed and the manufacturing classes, and probably by neither with a sole regard to justice and the public good. The apportionment of taxes on the various descriptions of property is an act which seems to require the most exact impartiality; yet there is, perhaps, no legislative act in which greater opportunity and temptation are given to a predominant party to trample on the rules of justice. Every shilling with which they overburden the inferior number, is a shilling saved to their own pockets.
— Federalist No. 10
So the city councilman introduces a bill to rezone the waterfront for development. This development project was the centerpiece of his campaign for office and, after winning his seat on the council, he has tirelessly pushed for its passage.
But now a zealous reporter has uncovered that the councilman is not a disinterested party when it comes to this plan. He and his family have invested heavily in the very same waterfront property he is now urging the city to purchase and to redevelop. If the councilman’s plan passes in the form he drafted it, he and his family stand to gain $80 million.
That’s a huge sum of money.
What would you do for $80 million? It is, for 99.9 percent of us, a life-changing sum. It would be more than enough to pay off every debt and to fulfill every aspiration of saving for the future while living a life of ease. With $80 million you could easily retire. You could retire and create a foundation, dispensing substantial grants to your favorite causes and charities in life-changing, world-changing sums without ever worrying that you would exhaust the balance of capital in your lifetime or in the lifetime of your children.
It is simply impossible for most of us to imagine, then, that $80 million is not more than enough money to raise the suspicion of corruption with our hypothetical city councilman.
But while that city councilman is only hypothetical, that figure of $80 million is all too real.
In the hypothetical case of our hypothetical city councilman, everyone would agree that his advocacy of a policy that would enrich his family to the tune of $80 million reeks of corruption. He would face an enormous burden of proof to demonstrate that his $80 million windfall was somehow, in some almost unimaginable way, incidental to his plan and not the driving force behind it. Until such proof was supplied, both the councilman and his self-enriching scheme would be under a cloud of well-deserved suspicion.
How is that any different from the hypothetical city councilman? How does this personal enrichment to the tune of $80 million not set off alarm bells? Why are Mitt Romney and his tax scheme not under a similar cloud of well-deserved suspicion?
$80 million. $80-freaking-million.
Seriously, if $80 million is not a sufficient sum to trigger your personal corruption-detector, then you don’t have one.
I wrote about this back in 2005, when Vice President Dick Cheney was pushing a tax plan that would enrich himself personally to the tune of $12.6 million. Here’s the links for that series of posts:
Here was my summary from that final post:
1. Any given proposal — tax-cut, tax-hike, public works, whatever — must justly serve the public interest and promote the common good. Any politician advocating any kind of policy must demonstrate that the policy meets this test.
2. When politicians support proposals that result in immense financial benefit for themselves personally they have an even greater obligation to demonstrate that the proposal in question is truly in the interest of the entire public and not merely in their own interest. When you cash the check, you invite suspicion.
3. To consider off-limits any discussion of the personal financial benefits that politicians may have at stake in a particular policy debate paves the way for massive corruption.
4. Some policies that justly serve the public interest may also result in financial benefit for some politicians who support them. This is bound to occur. A lot. I have no problem with that, but in such cases the burden of proof lies with those politicians to demonstrate which way cause and effect is working.
5. If a politician advocates a policy that benefits him or her financially but on balance does not serve the public interest, then we can conclude that he or she is corrupt.
Seriously, though — $80 million.