THE END OF LEGAL BRIBERY? I have to say, I'm a little concerned with this "end of legal bribery" business. The thing smart people say after some pol goes down in a corruption scandal is that the real scandal is what's legal -- the perfectly ordinary day-to-day business of favor granting, cash-for-access, blah, blah, blah. I've always understood that clich´┐Ż to mean something like "the biggest problems need to be solved through the political process (i.e., elections) rather than the legal system." The FBI seems to have taken it in the opposite spirit to mean "we ought to start treating things formerly understood as legal as, in fact, illegal."

The upshot of that is going to be to concentrate an awful lot of practical political power in the hands of the FBI's public integrity division. So far, they're targeting people I don't like, so it all seems perfectly fine. But it makes me nervous about the long term. After all, a newspaper headline screaming "Congressman X Under Investigation on Bribery Charges" is extremely damaging, even if the guy eventually winds up being acquitted. I don't think I'm ready to mount a full-throated defense of legal bribery and honest graft at this point, but I do think this whole development deserves some more serious scrutiny. Fundamentally, the answer to bad politicians is for better politicians to run against them and voters to vote the bums out, not to have the FBI serve as a guardian of the legislative process.

See Mark Kleiman for more on this. Keep in mind that the FBI has not, historically, been America's finest institution.

--Matthew Yglesias

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