EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is Jonah Goldberg’s weekly “news”letter, the G-File. Subscribe here to get the G-File delivered to your inbox on Fridays.
Dear Reader (particularly those of you have finally figured out how to use a teleprompter),
Now, as the Iranians said before they released our hostages, let’s talk about money.
It’s wrong as a quote, and it’s wrong as an idea. The expression comes from the New Testament, Timothy 6:10. There are almost as many versions of this line as there are versions of the Bible.
The King James Bible says:
For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.
But the International Standard Version says:
For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, in their eagerness to get rich, have wandered away from the faith and caused themselves a lot of pain.
If you read the passage in context, this version is closer to the real meaning. The desire to be rich is a path to evil — I would say “can be a path” — but it is certainly not the only path.
Now, if I had to put together a résumé, “Biblical Literacy” would hit the cutting room floor, long before “Can Eat Inhuman Amounts of Chicken Wings” and somewhere around “Practitioner of the Ninja Arts.” So, as Bill Clinton will no doubt say when making his case at the Pearly Gates, let’s leave the Bible out of this.
Instead, let’s simply invoke common sense. Money simply cannot be the root of all evil. Let’s check the Archives of Evil, which I have saved as a handy PDF on my laptop.
Stalin and Hitler killed a lot of people (you could look it up) and a single-minded pursuit of filthy lucre is not the top item in the moral indictment against either. Jack the Ripper wasn’t called Jack the Mugger, for a reason. Jeffrey Dahmer didn’t sell body parts, he ate them. Osama bin Laden, abandoned a very lucrative career in the family business to live in caves and plot murder. Rape, I’m told, is not a get-rich-quick scheme, racists do not collect a royalty every time they use the “n-word,” and stalkers aren’t universally interested in getting their prey’s PIN number. Do I really need to go on?
Bernie Sanders is no Bible thumper and I don’t think such admonitions fit into the Cherokee faith, so Elizabeth Warren is off the hook.
The funny thing is that the people most likely to believe, at least in spirit, that money is the root of all evil aren’t widely known as strict Biblical adherents. Bernie Sanders is no Bible thumper and I don’t think such admonitions fit into the Cherokee faith, so Elizabeth Warren is off the hook. Rousseau, who believed all evils stemmed from the moment someone put a fence around a plot of land and declared it his, was a Christian of a sort, but I don’t think he had Timothy 6:10 in mind. And Marx came to his economics via his atheism, not the other way around.
If you’re inclined to see humanity through a cold, materialist prism it should be even more obvious that money can’t be the root of all evil. (Leave aside for the moment that cold materialist doctrines have quite a heavy lift explaining evil in the first place —- “evil” is such a judgey concept.) After all, money is a very recent human invention: Did evil not exist prior to the shekel? Somehow I doubt it.
Ironically, if you do believe that, then you’re buying into a modified version of original sin and the Fall of Man, in which the apple of knowledge is replaced by a fat wad of Benjamins (which, come to think of it, is pretty close to the Rousseauian line).
The Wages of Corruption
I bring this up in part because I’m very deep in the weeds of the book I’m writing. And even though I do not want to pick off morsels of that feast for the mind and peddle it here piecemeal, I also can’t get my head completely out of it either.
Another reason I bring it up is that I think Hillary Clinton’s corruption is a good illustration of how we have corrupted our understanding of corruption itself.
Corruption is a deeply misunderstood word. Today we associate it almost exclusively with graft, bribe-taking, and other forms of essentially financial malfeasance.
Graft is certainly a form of corruption, but not all forms of corruption can be described as graft. In fact, most of the corruptions in life don’t involve money at all. My Dad always used to say that the most corrupting thing in everyday life was friendship, not money. What he meant by that is that we do things for friends we would (almost) never do for strangers offering cash.
My Dad always used to say that the most corrupting thing in everyday life was friendship, not money.
For the sake of argument, let’s imagine that in ten or 15 years, a longtime friend of mine, say Steve Hayes, asks me to get his kid an internship at National Review or AEI (assuming they haven’t fired me by then). I’m not saying I would automatically do it; there are other considerations at play. But let’s assume that on paper the kid is qualified. I would certainly consider it (at least to spare the young’n the professional and moral stain of working at that hive of mopery and insolence, The Weekly Standard). But if some stranger offered me $1,000 dollars to get his kid an internship, I’m certain I would reject the entreaty summarily.
This highlights the difference between morals and ethics. It is unethical — and arguably immoral — to take a bribe of this sort. But, in practice, it doesn’t matter whether or not it’s immoral to do this kind of favor for a friend because the simple fact is that it happens 100,000 times a day all around the world. Teamsters help get their buddy’s kids into the union, college trustees help their golfing partner’s kid navigate the application process, generals give their incompetent old friends nice billets out of personal loyalty.
That’s because favors are the original currency of mankind. This is not a controversial point in the academic literature. No society has ever existed anywhere on earth in which favoritism towards family and friends wasn’t endemic. It’s in our genes — and not just our genes, but the genes of every cooperative species. “Indeed,” writes Francis Fukuyama, “the most basic forms of cooperation predate the emergence of human beings by millions of years. Biologists have identified two natural sources of cooperative behavior: kin selection and reciprocal altruism.”
Reciprocal altruism, at least for our purposes here, boils down to “I’ll get your back, if you get mine.” Army units live — or die — by this principle.
Every meaningful realm of life that hasn’t been taken over by the logic of markets and contracts, operates on some version of reciprocal altruism. We don’t think of it in those sterile terms, though. We yoke all sorts of other concepts to it: friendship, honor, obligation, etc. And in the vast, vast, vast majority of cases, this is a good and wonderful thing. It is what motivates us to visit sick friends in hospitals and to ruin our Saturdays helping a coworker move.
But politics is different. For good reasons — and more than a few bad ones — we’ve tried to wall off politics from the logic of the market. Public servants are supposed to be above personal financial motivations. To say that we’ve failed to uphold this principle is one of the great understatements of our time, on par with “Sally Kohn can be annoying sometimes.”
The vast majority of corruptions in politics have little to do with money.
Still, the vast majority of corruptions in politics have little to do with money. And even in the cases where money is part of the indictment, it is only part of it. Most people don’t go into politics to get rich, not even Harry Reid (who nonetheless managed it). Vladimir Putin may be the richest man in the world, but you don’t have to be his psychiatrist to understand that he didn’t go into politics just for the rubles.
People go into politics for a number of reasons, many of them lofty, but at least one of them not so much: status. The desire to be a politician is almost inseparable from the desire to want to be a Very Important Person and, in many cases, a Very Important Person Who Can Tell Other People What to Do. The former, at least, is not in itself evil. No doubt many people want — or believe they want — to be Very Important in order to help people.
(I should say that to the extent the desire to be rich is the path to evil, it’s not the money that’s the problem, it’s the desire to be important because you are rich.)
Do Me a Favor
The primary currency of politics is the favor. Trading favors at the macro-level is often called logrolling, but at the micro-level it is called “politics.” Favors can involve trading power, information, offices, access, recommendations of all sorts, status, and, of course, taxpayer dollars.
Among the experts, there are fascinating debates about how much we should expect developing countries to shed their “corrupt” practices. When we give money to an official in Afghanistan, we want that money to go to the winning bidder. The official wants that money to go to his cousin or his clan or some other allied faction. When the official gets his way, we call it corruption. But the official says, “This is how politics has worked in my country for thousands of years.”
And he’s right.
If you watch Game of Thrones you’ll notice that gold plays a big part in petty corruptions, but the desire for power is the real source of moral degeneration. Change out “Westeros” for “Ancient Rome,” the “Soviet Union,” or virtually every other society that has ever existed and you’ll notice the same thing.
The Medicis of the Ozarks
Which brings me to the Clintons. The coverage of the Clinton Foundation is a textbook example of how our pinched and narrow conception of corruption distorts our understanding of politics. Those few mainstream reporters interested in the story at all think the hook is the “pay for play” angle.
A whole generation of reporters have misconstrued the phrase “follow the money” to mean “it’s all about the money.” But if you go back and actually look at Watergate, the reason why “Deepthroat” said “follow the money” (a phrase invented by William Goldman for the movie All the Presidents Men, by the way; there’s no evidence Deepthroat actually said it) was that the money trail would lead to the actual corruption. The money itself had little to do with the real crimes. The real crime revolved around Nixon’s desire to stay in power, not to get rich. And Mark Felt, the real Deepthroat, wasn’t motivated by any lofty principle or even by a desire for profit, he was a petty man who felt passed over when he wasn’t named as J. Edgar Hoover’s replacement.
The Wall Street Journal reported Friday morning that Bill and Chelsea Clinton will stop raising money for their foundation if Hillary is elected president. They will also stop convening the Clinton Global Initiative, which was a brilliant scam for Bill to schmooze and logroll with billionaires, corporations, NGO heads, “thinkfluencers,” and the heads of countless foreign governments. The Journal adds this bit of analysis:
The planned changes are an attempt to insulate Mrs. Clinton from perceptions that Clinton Foundation donors could benefit from her administration’s official actions, these people and a Clinton campaign official said. Even a scaled-down foundation would mark an unprecedented turn in politics, given what would be the organization’s close identification with the White House.
The story doesn’t make reference to it, but this is all in response to leaked e-mails showing that some Nigerian billionaire took time off from sending me e-mails asking for my bank routing number to buy access to the State Department. This “pay for play” angle is simply a manifestation of the bastardization of “follow the money.”
The Clintons are a tribe, a House like House Lanister or House Harkonen.
The money isn’t the primary issue with the Clintons and it never was. Sure, sure, they like being rich. They like flying around in private planes. They like having lots of houses. But the Clinton Foundation was never about getting rich, it was about keeping the Imperial Court in Exile well-tended to for their return to power. Huma’s amazingly corrupt moonlighting wasn’t about money grubbing per se, it was about keeping Hillary’s Richelieu on the payroll.
The Clintons are a tribe, a House like House Lanister or House Harkonen. They trade power, fame, influence and, sure, on occasion, money to advance the interests of their House.
Here’s how I put it last year (in a much better G-File):
Hillary Clinton recognized that her ambitions could only be realized by hitching herself to her sociopath husband. No doubt that decision had its downsides, but look where she is now. Let’s not pretend she didn’t make peace with her husband’s ways a long, long time ago. She was happy to make $100,000 on cattle futures, after all. When the Clintons left office they created a “foundation” whose chief purpose was to give form and function to House Clinton, a modern day version of a medieval aristocracy. The House of Medici did many good things. They fed the poor. They built cathedrals. But their good works were the price of power, not the purpose of the power. The Clinton Foundation does some good things, I’m sure. But the charitable work should be seen for what it is: the cost of business. Mob bosses buy ice cream cones for poor kids. When Marlo Stanfield becomes the big man in The Wire, he’s quick to have his goons hand out money to the school kids for new clothes.
No doubt the Clinton Foundation is full of well-intentioned people who are committed to making the world a better place. But the idea that the core mission of the Clinton Foundation is to do good works is absurd. The core mission of the Clinton Foundation is to expand the empire of House Clinton (and improve the lifestyle of the Lords of the Keep). This is obvious not only from their own accounting, but from everything we know about how Bill and Hillary Clinton have conducted themselves. The mere fact that Sidney Blumenthal was on the foundation’s payroll tells you all you need to know. The Gates Foundation or Oxfam would never hire Sidney Blumenthal because they have no use for a malevolent and lugubrious political mercenary.
Hillary Clinton is corrupt in countless ways, but her desire for personal profit is among the least of her transgressions. She didn’t stay in her thoroughly corrupted marriage for money, she didn’t set up her server for money, she didn’t fire the White House travel office for money, she committed these sins — and myriad others — in order to seek the power and status that she covets and feels she is due.
Various & Sundry
I know we’re taking a break from Trump stuff, but I really didn’t want this to go by the wayside. Last night on Megyn Kelly’s show, in the midst of lavishing praise on Donald Trump, my friend Bill Bennett said:
There’s a lot of people and there are still undecided people. [Trump] does not need to speak to the NeverTrump person — some of my friends, or maybe former friends, who suffer from a terrible case of moral superiority, and put their own vanity and taste above the interest of the country.
I have two points, one analytical one personal. First the analytical: I think Bill is right that Trump shouldn’t bother trying to win over the NeverTrump folks. Contrary to the claims of Sean Hannity and countless others, there aren’t enough NeverTrump people to matter and there’s very little he could do to win most of us over. Trump needs to win over persuadable voters in swing states. There are millions of those people. And, I agree with Bill that Trump’s efforts in the last few days are a good start. This is worth keeping in mind when Sean et al. start convening their Peoples Tribunals to hold the NeverTrumpers “accountable” for sabotaging the election. If Trump loses it will be because Trump blew a winnable election, not because a few journalists and activists failed to get on board the Trump Train.
If Trump loses it will be because Trump blew a winnable election, not because a few journalists and activists failed to get on board the Trump Train.
Now for the personal: Bill should apologize, for two reasons. First, I do not question his patriotism or love of country for so enthusiastically supporting a man who in his personal life and as a politician desecrates so much Bill has stood for over the past 50 years. I just think Bill’s wrong. This kind of rhetoric is beneath him.
Second, the idea that Bill Frick’n Bennett should be lecturing people about their “moral superiority” is a really bad look for him.
These are some of the books Bill has written: The Book of Virtues; The Devaluing of America: The Fight for Our Culture and Our Faith; The Death of Outrage: Bill Clinton and the Assault on American Ideals; The Broken Hearth: Reversing the Collapse of the American Family; Index of Cultural Indicators: Facts and Figures on the State of American Society; The Children’s Book of Heroes; The Children’s Book of Faith; The Book of Man: Readings on the Path to Manhood; and Why We Fight: Moral Clarity and the War on Terrorism.
One can debate whether Bill has been guilty of “moral superiority” over his career. As a longtime defender and fan of Bill’s, I actually wouldn’t make that charge because I know Bill and I know that he argues for the superiority of morals, which is a different thing. Even so, there are some arguments that I think are not very useful to him, and charging — even by insinuation — his friends Bill Kristol, Steve Hayes, Charles Murray, Pete Wehner, and yours truly, to name a few, of being guilty of unpatriotically indulging their vanity, taste, and “moral superiority” amounts not to persuasion but an attempt to anathematize not just friends but your philosophical comrades-in-arms during the heat of an election. He, of all people, should know better.
Canine Update: We are back from Maine and the dogs are pissed. Even my Carolina swamp dog doesn’t understand why the two-leggers would want to be in Washington, D.C., when it is enveloped in the meteorological equivalent of a meth addicts’ sweatpant-crotch fog. Pippa has taken to rolling in rain puddles to beat the heat. My wife, The Fair Jessica, and my daughter are heading off to the Pacific Northwest next week, leaving me on solo canine duty for a while as I re-hunker down on the book. So I expect I’ll have more scintillating tails of doggy daring doo and perhaps poo. But I must now hike to the airport as I am going to a wedding way up in Michigan. The lovely and talented Kate Bachelder is tying the knot and, as I expect to be working for the hard-charging Hillsdale grad one day, I don’t want to miss it.
The new GLoP Podcast is out.
My column today is on the bizarre double-standard we apply to corporations that commit journalism.
The week’s first column was on the white-identity politics that goes by the brand name “nationalism” these days.
That column elicited some interesting responses by Avik Roy and Jeremy Carl. Here’s my response to them.
And here is a very silly person.
And here is some other silly stuff.