Technology innovation
strategy & design
Ravi Pandya
(425) 688-9123
resume vcard rss
Ravi Pandya   software | nanotechnology | economics

The King's Shilling

The Conflict of Interest Amendment
Tainted by the King's Shilling

Ravi Pandya
December 18, 1993

[Comment 9/10/2002: I wrote this a long time ago, but never had anywhere to publish it until now. Reading it again, I still find I agree with most of the points - though I'm not quite the hot-headed radical I was then, so I'd probably write in a moderate tone. I do think it's an interesting perspective on the inherent conflict of interest in the "public" sphere.]

A couple of centuries back, someone in the British Navy came up with a creative way to solve the manpower shortage. Recruiting officers would go to dockside pubs and surreptitiously drop shillings into beer mugs. If you had the misfortune to find a shilling after draining your mug of stout, you were considered to have accepted the drink (and the shilling) as your signing bonus and were immediately pressed into service, willing or not. Mugs with glass bottoms started to become very popular.

A subtler version of this process is at work today, as the government steadily encroaches upon our lives and livelihoods. Most of us agree with a few of the things the government is doing - "liberals" tend to favor social programs; "conservatives", defense; and most people like the idea of tax-funded schools, roads. and parks. But what about everything else? The state also pays farmers to not grow food; it pays poor people to not get married or get a job; it pays failing corporations to not go out of business; it pays artists to not produce work people want to see; it pays agents to not let people say what they want; it pays bureaucrats to not let people buy what they want; the list goes on.

You will probably find a few things on this list which you think really should be paid for, out of your tax dollars, and mine, and everyone elses. But, I ask again, what about all the other things? On balance, is it worth getting the few things you want if the price is all the myriad of things you don't want? And the price is usually more than merely money - the toll is paid in opportunities you'll never know you missed, roads you'll never have a chance to take. And all too often, the price is paid in lives: lives lost in the desert in a war that had nothing to do with the survival of the nation; lives lost in hospitals as an agency founded to protect us from unsafe drugs has become a bureaucracy which merely makes us wait for years, for drugs which are no safer than before. A government conceived to promote the common welfare does much to harm it. What has gone wrong?

The political process is not really about balancing competing interests in the pursuit of fairness, it is about adding up disparate interests in the pursuit of power. Each new activity of the government has its supporters, who care about it more than anything else, and will lobby to prevent it from disappearing. Collect enough of these groups together, and you can get elected. Keep satisfying them, and they form the political capital that keeps getting you reelected, to a supposedly democratic institution that is in fact more static the the Politburo or the House of Lords. Once a voter has taken the King's Shilling, they have a strong interest in their particular program, and relatively little interest in the the rest. Even though the community as a whole would be better off if everyone could just agree to get rid of all the programs at once, building such a coalition is extremely difficult. It is far easier to look for a way to just get your own fair share back.

How can we short-circuit this process? Politicians are not supposed to take money to influence their votes, but the voters themselves are under no such ethical constraints. This is where the real corruption in government lies, and it is everywhere. Almost the entire activity of our elected representatives, particularly at the state and federal level, is devoted to figuring out how to divert some of the taxpayer's money or the state's powers to benefit their constituents. Any activity that might actually serve to increase the common welfare of the citizens is at the mercy of old-time legislative horse traders, who tack on clauses to make sure that their own people are taken care of. When the next election rolls around, the voters see the evidence of this government largesse flowing upon their district, and vote to get even more. They may cry out against rising taxes and regulation, but only so long as it doesn't interfere with the benefits flowing in their direction.

So let's remove the temptation:

The Conflict of Interest Amendment: Any person who receives in excess of one tenth of their gross income from the government, either directly or as an employee of such an organization, whether in the form of money, loans, loan guarantees, goods, services, or special privileges, shall be ineligible to vote in any election.

So how many people are tainted by the King's Shilling? Let's run through the list:

Money: This obviously includes all recipients of welfare, Social Security, and other forms of government assistance, along with all civil servants and military personnel. Less obviously, it also includes defence contractors, government suppliers, public works contractors, agribusinesses on crop subsidies, and a large portion of the scientific, academic, and artistic community.

Loans and loan guarantees: Most university and college students. Government-financed businesses. Since most home mortgages are in fact resold to FNMA, most home owners. Chrysler Corporation. Large depositors in FDIC/FSLIC-insured institutions. Owners of such institutions.

Goods, services, and special privileges: This gets very juicy. Lumber companies who log on government land for less than it costs to build the roads. Farmers who grow rice in the California desert with almost free government water. Automakers who grew fat and lazy under the shield of quotas and tariffs against better, cheaper Japanese cars. Steel, textile, and many other manufacturers in the same position. Anyone with a fair-sized tax-deductible mortgage could well be considered to fall in this category, as could any tax-exempt organization.

Is there anyone left? I doubt it. If this amendment were passed tomorrow, I think we could fit our entire electorate in a New England town hall. Everyone else is on the graft, one way or another. Their corruptions may be petty, they may be pragmatic, they may even be unavoidable; yet they are legion. This is how we have lost our liberty, our prosperity, and our charity: not in a cataclysmic revolution, but in the steady grinding maw of the omnivorous State.

January 2003
Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
      1 2 3 4
5 6 7 8 9 10 11
12 13 14 15 16 17 18
19 20 21 22 23 24 25
26 27 28 29 30 31  
Dec   Feb

© Copyright 2003 Ravi Pandya . Last update: 1/18/03; 10:42:38 AM .

  Click to see the XML version of this web page.