You probably think corruption is everywhere, and that it is terrible. Maybe you're right. But there's almost nothing you can do about it.
This is our American reality. Behold our polarized politics and our money-worshipping culture! Feast your eyes on American politicians of all stripes grubbing for the edge only dollars can earn! There's Marco Rubio on his biweekly foreign policy call with Macau casino magnate Sheldon Adelson! And there's Hillary Clinton using her family foundation as a global cash cow to rival even the biggest of windfalls in cattle futures!
Power players on all sides engage in various forms of corruption. But we have a tendency to defend the corrupt among us and skewer those we disagree with. While our political opponents howl, we circle the wagons around the money magnets in our preferred political tribe. Because we sense, deep down, that currying favor with donors and benefactors really is a high-stakes investment in a kind of futures market.
Even an ethicist would sagely observe that to "get the money out of politics," we'd have to get the power out of politics. But if we do that, we risk losing the future. Corruption is as competitive a business as any. Better we benefit, and do something nice with the money, than our adversaries (at home or abroad) entice the plutocrats to line their pockets — and not ours.
At its worst, this point of view devolves into a jackal-like determination merely to get our share of the action. But in a sense, even that level of cynicism can be morally outdone. Why not replace the bad old vision of competition with the ever-progressive idea of collaboration? If international money sloshes freely across all coffers, can't international peace and security travel as freely? Republicans are more comfortable when mega-corporations lead the way; Democrats, mega-foundations. Can't we all just get along?
You can see how following this logic leads us very far afield from the small ball of presidential donor season. Democrats fume that Adelson might drop a fresh $150 million on the 2016 campaign — failing to note just how little money that is by any relevant standard. By comparison, in 2013, it cost over $400 million to field Ferrari's Formula One race team. Presidential politics is a small sandbox for the moneyed super-elite. Just ask Newt Gingrich, whose Adelson infusion wound up affecting the 2012 race about as much as a Facebook like.
As the Clinton cash saga reveals, the out-of-office money game is the real devil's playground. Instead of just one reason to rake in the green, there's a theoretically unending supply. Here a speech, there an appearance, there an exercise of "influence" or a connection between "friends." Do it right, and you can actually spend years arbitraging your own return to political power.
It's enough to make everyday Americans cry out for some kind of policy reform. Surely there's some way to turn the formidable power of the federal government against sleazy and wanton deeds?
Not really, unfortunately. Although laws against flagrant abuse have a clear point, the problem with corruption is that it can't be banned in a free society. It's even harder to crack down on corruption than it is to outlaw alcohol or pornography. Elites hang out with each other. That's what they do. It's what makes them elite.
As much as it galls the rest of us, there's only one surefire way to prevent them from sinking into decadent, dangerous venality. Vote in the incorruptible. And vote out the scoundrels. No matter how good they are at politics. No matter whose team they're on.
No wonder we see corruption everywhere. We despise the idea of bejeweled despots — unless they can flatter our favorite prejudices.