by Robert Maynard
Does Vermont’s small size mean that it has no need for transparency in its state politics? That seems to be the argument that Governor Shumlin and other democratic leaders are making in a recent Vermont Digger article entitled “Why mandatory financial disclosures for Vermont politicians won’t be a campaign issue anytime soon.” Shumlin specifically downplayed the significance of Vermont being awarded a D+ for transparency by the Center for Public Integrity. The specific issue in question is whether Vermont should make personal financial disclosures mandatory for politicians running for office. Vermont is one of only three states than have no such requirement.
Shumlin’s reaction to Vermont’s low ranking for transparency was to brush it off and insist that we do things differently here: “I think that’s a beautiful example of when national trends don’t reflect the reality in Vermont.” Apparently he is not alone among Vermont’s political leadership that feels this way:
But don’t expect Vermont to adopt financial disclosure rules any time soon, given the coziness of the go-along, get-along political zeitgeist in Montpelier and the oft-proffered argument from lawmakers and others: “Vermont is a small place … we really know each other.” (That quote is from a statement made by former gubernatorial candidate and Secretary of State Deb Markowitz to the Center for Public Integrity in 2009.)
The question is whether our small size and the fact that “we really know each other” actually means we have no need for more transparency. A good argument could be made that our small size and easy familiarity means we need more transparency, not less. It is far easier to centralize political power and turn the state into the personal fiefdom of a select few in a small state where where everyone knows everyone. In a large state it is much harder to maintain political control over the populace for an extended period of time. Witness the crackup of the former Soviet Union, while the hermit kingdom of North Korea seems to have been barely affected by the centrifugal forces that pulled the Soviet Union apart.
As Lord Acton said “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The centralization of political power is particularly corrupting. In fact, there is a pretty strong correlation between the degree of the centralization of political power and the degree of cronyism. In his blog Benjamin Powell, Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute and Associate Professor of Economics at Suffolk University, illustrated this correlation in an article entitled “Occupy Wall Street: A One Year Retrospective“:
The government’s vast economic power is the real source of the problems the occupy movement was upset about. Capitalists don’t make society poorer when they have to win your voluntary purchase of their products. These wealthy people are only a problem when they get government to act on their behalf. If the government didn’t have such vast spending and regulatory powers there would be nothing for crony capitalists to hijack. Unfortunately, the size and scope of the U.S. government has continued to grow at the expense of our economic freedom. Too bad the occupy movement didn’t slow that trend.
Of course the cozy relationship between favored businesses and government, that occurs as a result of political centralization, does not only create perks for those favored businesses. The same insesteous relationship between government and business creates a situation in which a few political figures are able to greatly enrich themselves personally because of their ability to hand out rewards and punishments to political friends and enemies. Again, this is much easier in a small polity where everyone knows everyone. Consider this quote from Lord Acton’s lecture entitled “The History of Freedom in Christianity” regarding the feudal traditions of the pre-Christian tribes that sacked the Roman Empire:
The action of the state was confined to narrow limits; but, besides his position as head of the state, the king was surrounded by a body of followers attached to him by personal or political ties. In these his immediate dependants, disobedience or resistance to orders was no more tolerated than in a wife, a child, or a soldier; and a man was expected to murder his own father, if his chieftain required it. Thus these Teutonic communities admitted an independence of government that threatened to dissolve society; and a dependence on persons that was dangerous to freedom.
We really do not need a situation where the dependence on persons is so great. Vermont is already one of the most highly centralized states in the nation politically. That means those who control the apparatus of government have at their disposal a great many rewards and punishments to hand out to political friends and enemies. With this centralization of political power, and lack of transparency, has come a great deal of cronyism and arrogance. We at TNR have written often about the cronyism associated with Vermont’s energy policies. As for the arrogance, witness the dismissive contempt that Peter Shumlin showed for the Vermont Press Bureau’s Peter Hirschfeld when Hirschfield had the audacity to question Shumlin on his sweetheart land deal with long time political supporters. Is it any wonder that Shumlin opposes moves toward greater transparency like mandates that politicians disclose personal finances? He has a good thing going as he increases his personal control over the the apparatus to the Vermont state government.