Everybody does it. It’s legal. What’s the problem?
That was more or less the response from Las Vegas City Councilwoman Michele Fiore when she was questioned about the six figures she gave her daughter’s company in exchange for “advertising” and “event planning”. As far as defenses go, it has the honor of being refreshingly honest. Say whatever you will about Las Vegas’ irascible mayor pro tem – she certainly deserves every word of it – but you have to hand it to her, she’s absolutely correct on that much, at least.
If anything, the truly sad part is how small her potential corruption even is. $109,000? That’s all? Chris Giunchigliani paid her husband’s consulting firm more than $1 million over the better part of a decade. Kelvin Atkinson diverted nearly $500,000 from his campaign account before the U.S. attorney’s office (and, curiously, not the attorney general, despite him being a former state senator) convicted him of violating federal election law. Even the one Libertarian former assemblyman in Nevada’s history, the otherwise lamentable John Moore, almost got a reality show and a house.
No, wait. That’s not right. That’s not the sad part at all.
The sad part is that Nevadans want to know what people are getting in exchange for what their representatives are receiving and the only people who can tell them are the least likely to do so — namely, those very same representatives. The last time Nevada’s august Legislature took up the issue, it demonstrated its commitment to transparency by drafting a bill not only at the last minute but, if Senate bill numbers are any indication, by drafting it dead last and then passing it near-unanimously from the Southwest Airlines boarding terminal in the Reno-Tahoe International Airport.
This sort of nonsense generates a ceaseless stream of complaints about campaign finance laws among Libertarian circles, of course. That said, bouncing rubble upon the rhetorical territory of whether money is speech (ask the CCEA) and under what conditions and incentives our representatives might govern said speech (don’t expect campaign finance rules to be friendly to anyone running against incumbents) is boring and frankly rather misses the point.
The point is this: We want to know that our politicians aren’t being bought. Failing that, and we’ve been failing that since at least 1864, we want to know who’s buying, what they got for their money, and how much it cost.
That’s not an unreasonable request. We get that information from publicly traded companies and non-profit organizations via various SEC and IRS forms, after all. Why should political campaigns be any different? Even in the absence of government mandated paperwork, it’d be a rare donor or investor who would blindly give money without a clear understanding of where the money was going. Unfortunately, when we’re talking about political campaigns, we, the people, usually aren’t the investors. We’re the customers. Or worse — we’re the product.
Sadly, as we all know, politicians will always act according to their interests, chief of which includes getting reelected, and second of which includes ensuring that, once they stop getting elected, they and their families remain in prominent positions of privilege. Consequently, expecting them to govern themselves with integrity, much less govern their colleagues with integrity, must always fail. They have every incentive to fail, do they not?
So why bother? Why should we care?
The answer is simple: Nihilism is a trap.
Nihilism is an attractive trap, to be clear. It’s attractive to us because it means we can evade responsibility. We don’t have to care what politicians are up to. We don’t have to care if they pay their children, their husbands, or finance their dance clubs with campaign contributions from Cegavske-knows-where. We don’t have to expend that energy or effort. In a way, it’s almost liberating. The key word, however, as Reno’s David Chapman points out in his book, Meaningness, is almost. Inevitably, Chapman points out, nihilism leads to anger, depression and denial of reality itself.
Nihilism, meanwhile, is also attractive to politicians. The less we care, the more they can get away with.
To be clear, it’s not just the politicians who get away with more. Those of us in a position to enable politicians also get to get away with more, too. That’s why, no matter which political faction you belong to, there’s always a narrative that your opponents are far more devious and less constrained by ethics than you are. If you adopt a nihilistic stance, this is great news — if your opponents are getting away with murder, why shouldn’t you?
Ask President Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton.
When faced with the trap of nihilism, we have to ask ourselves a couple of questions. First, what if we’re wrong? Even granting that some politicians are crooked and self-serving, are most of them? Second, even if we’re right about politicians being crooked and corrupt, why should we give up and accept that?
Truth is, people self-regulate all of the time. Proctor & Gamble, for example, begged Congress to require NASA-grade food standards for the canning industry in the early 1970s after a botulism outbreak. Similarly, Jack in the Box voluntarily increased meat safety requirements from its vendors after an E. coli outbreak in the 1990s. The history of UL, formerly Underwriters Laboratories and the ones that stamp their mark on light bulbs, was built around people choosing to voluntarily submit their products to UL to demonstrate their safety. eBay works because we trust that, if we give someone money, they’ll put what we bought in a box and ship it to us no matter who they are and no matter where they might be.
Yes, it’s true, sometimes self-regulation leads to regulatory capture, especially once the government gets involved. When Proctor & Gamble asked Congress to require NASA-grade food standards, it certainly didn’t hurt their bottom line that a lot of their smaller competitors would inevitably go out of business because of the inability to implement the costly new reforms. Similarly, Libertarians have been ranting against the evils of the American Medical Association and their cartel’s pernicious effects on doctors’ wages and health care prices (among other things) since the 1960s. Then there’s the issue of occupational licensing, but there’s more than enough ground there to fill another column.
Acknowledging that sometimes regulation, whether voluntarily applied or not, goes wrong, however, does not absolve us from the responsibility of regulating ourselves nor from the responsibility of holding others accountable. Jack in the Box held itself accountable because we, as customers, held Jack in the Box accountable by not buying their product. Proctor & Gamble held itself accountable (and the canning industry hostage) because we, as customers, held canned foods accountable by not buying their product. Similarly, politicians will hold themselves accountable when we step out of the trap of nihilism and stop voting for politicians who refuse to even maintain an appearance of propriety, much less the real thing.
Yes, doing so will require us to be vigilant. Yes, we will be frequently disappointed. Yes, they will be frequently hypocritical. No, those are not excuses to shrug, throw on some Pearl Jam, watch South Park reruns and get high while the world burns. Yes, sometimes those demanding we care are conning us and taking advantage of our empathy. It happens. The alternative, however, is letting those same people con us and take advantage of our apathy and the results of that are much worse.
I would like to live in a Nevada where politicians at least try to be sneaky when they launder campaign money through family members. I would like to live in a Nevada where politicians have to be sneaky when they launder campaign money through family members.
It’s time for Nevadans to become a lot less nihilistic about our politicians and start holding them to a higher standard. A good place to start would be the voting booth.
David Colborne has been active in the Libertarian Party for two decades. During that time, he has blogged intermittently on his personal blog, as well as the Libertarian Party of Nevada blog, and ran for office twice as a Libertarian candidate. He serves on the Executive Committee for both his state and county Libertarian Party chapters. He is the father of two sons and an IT professional. You can follow him on Twitter @DavidColborne or email him at [email protected].