Occasions of Sin


A friend has shared Danny Katch, A Bloomberg Presidency Would Have Trump-Size Conflicts of Interest. In it, if you oppose Bloomberg’s candidacy, you will find much grist for your mill. If, on the other hand, you are considering voting for Bloomberg, you need to wrap your mind thoroughly around the best case to be made against him, before you make your final decision.

Mr. Katch, described as “a socialist, activist and humor writer,” tries manfully to link Bloomberg to scandals that occurred during Bloomberg’s tenure as mayor of New York City. I’m not familiar with these matters, so I don’t have anything to say about these specific arguments.

But Katch makes a rather different point as well—one that, I think, we need to keep in perspective. He argues that Bloomberg’s outsized philanthropy creates a powerful, inherent disincentive for any criticism of Bloomberg by those who might seek his charity. Yea, even, a powerful incentive among the do gooders affirmatively to endorse his candidacy.

I don’t think one can reasonably quarrel with the logic of that argument. But, as I said, I think it needs some perspective.

My father was an auto mechanic. He had a strong, inherent conflict of interest: the economic incentive to try to sell services his customers did not need. He taught me the importance of resisting that conflict and training yourself, always, to be truthful with your customers.

As a lawyer, I had the same inherent economic incentive: to overstate my client’s chances of winning in litigation, so as to line my pockets with money.

It comes down to a matter of individual character on one side, and trust on the other side. Do you trust your doctor or your dentist to act in your own best interest? If you do, fine. If you don’t, better look for another doctor and another dentist.

It’s similar to the kind of decision you need to make about Bloomberg. Mr. Katch seems to have thrown every bit of mud he could find, and you will need to decide how much of it sticks.

And, of course, you will need to look at Bloomberg’s record as a whole, not just the negative and/’or allegedly negative parts of it.

A Separation of Elites?

It’s also fair, I think, to attribute to Mr. Katch the assumption that political elites should be pretty much divorced from economic elites, because the temptations for wrongdoing are just too great. You get the same kind of thinking from people who are greatly exercised by Mayor Pete’s receiving checks from billionaires in wine cellars.

Separation of political elites and economic elites is not going to happen. From time to time, the president of Eli Lilly is going to pick up the phone and call the governor of Indiana. And the governor of Indiana is bloody well going to take the call. And will the call be an occasion of sin? You betcha. Will actual sin be committed during the course of the conversation? Sometimes yes. Sometimes no. With any luck, more often no than yes. With any luck, the voters of Indiana and the shareholders of Eli Lilly will have elevated to high office people of at least ordinary decency, people who try, more often than not, to do the right thing.

And if not? Well, you aren’t going to be able to enforce a rule that bad rich people are forbidden to talk to crooked politicians. You wind up sounding like the radical preacher who adamantly opposed premarital sex on the ground that it could lead to dancing.

An Extreme Case?

All that said, I cannot deny that the Bloomberg candidacy is an extreme case. Mr. Bloomberg is far from a generic billionaire “trying to buy an election.”

First, he has a whole lot more money than most billionaires.

Second, he has a whole lot more political experience than most billionaires.

Third, he has done a whole lot more philanthropy than most billionaires.

Fourth, he’s willing to spend a whole lot more of his own money to get elected, by comparison with the average billionaire.

Combining the vast power that comes with the presidency with the vast power that comes from wealth beyond the dreams of avarice feels like it’s inherently dangerous.

If feels like the sort of thing that could well corrupt the noblest and most incorruptible.

It feels like sort of thing that best avoided, unless the alternative is very bad indeed.