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“Drain the swamp!” you say. It’s a fine catchphrase, and I endorse the sentiment, but what are we really talking about? Well, corruption in Washington, of course; everyone can agree that we need to eliminate corruption in Washington. Right?
Well, sure. But Washington is a big place. There are a lot of moving parts and a lot of places for corruption to hide. How precisely do we go about exposing it, let alone removing it? And assuming we do manage to both expose and remove corruption to any degree, just exactly what are we going to replace it with? This last question is a serious one, for without a serious answer to it, it’s not clear that “draining the swamp” is worth the effort.
I don’t have the answers to these questions, but I do have some thoughts. I only wish they were more encouraging.
As it seems we must, let’s begin with President Trump. Trump has brought a lot to the presidency — some good; some not. Without wading into what’s what on that front, I think it’s objectively true that Trump has acted as a lightning rod for corruption. Trump Derangement Syndrome is a real thing, and time and again we’ve seen corruption reveal itself as its victims risk their reputations and careers to defend or destroy him. We’ve had a harsh glimpse at both how rampant and deep is the corruption in Washington. So, at least in that narrow sense, Trump has done the country a service. Still, it’s a safe bet that we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg, and we can only fret at how much more lies beneath the surface.
The thing is, Trump is a singularly polarizing figure, and he won’t be with us forever. While things may never return to “normal,” in a few months, or years, this particular lightning rod will be gone. And whatever the new “normal” looks like, we can be sure the “deep state” will seek out new rocks, once again to wage corruption from the shadows.
The upshot of all this is that whatever corruption Trump has managed to expose or even remedy, it’s not enough, and it’s only temporary. So I ask again, just how do we go about “draining the swamp” in any meaningful and lasting way?
It is the temporariness of the problem which prompts my “serious” question above: Supposing we do figure out how to expose and eliminate corruption in Washington, what are we going to replace it with? That’s the thing about swamps. You can drain them, but they are just going to fill back up unless you fill them in with something (typically land). The same conditions that gave rise to the swamp in the first place are going to give rise to it again..
In the case at hand, the “conditions” are people. You can fire all the corrupt people you want (assuming you can find them), but if all you’ve got to replace them with is other people, good luck. One of the things that makes a conservative is a realistic view of human nature, and any realistic assessment has to conclude that we’re going to end up right back where we started.
If there is a serious answer to the question, I think it lies in Milton Friedman’s observation that you don’t want a system that relies on the right people being in the right positions. There just aren’t enough right people, and there’s no reliable way to ensure that the wrong people aren’t going to come along tomorrow. All of which has me concluding that “draining the swamp” is the wrong approach, at least in the way it’s being conceptualized. Replacing “their corrupt people” with “our corrupt people” — even if you could do it — is satisfying (and, admittedly, an improvement), but it’s not a long-term solution.
One of my personal mottoes is People are a problem — and people in charge of other people are a bigger problem. That’s not going to change any time soon. So if there’s any hope, and I’m not sure there is, it has to be in changing the system itself. If we’re serious about tackling the problem, we need to abandon the “drain the swamp” mentality and adopt more of a “pull the plug” approach. We need to take so much power away from Washington that there’s literally nothing left to corrupt.
Now, I know I’m preaching to the proverbial choir here; all of us are in favor of drastically reducing the size and scope of the federal government. And it’s fair to ask just how, precisely, we go about gutting the government when all efforts since the Signing have failed. And, sadly, the answer is … I don’t know. (Recall, I only promised you thoughts, not answers.)
I am convinced, however, that this is the better question to be asking.Published in