Is politics innately corrupt according to Jewish thought?

Wednesday, 27 May, 2009 - 3:51 pm


The recent expenses row of British Members of Parliament stimulates a debate about the nature of politics and the moral status of politicians in the eyes of the public. What once might have been an honourable position in society seems to have become detested and prone to corruption.


It is no secret that politicians have a reputation of corruption and whose words can chronically not be trusted. Winston Churchill (1874-1965) once said a desirable qualification of a young politician is to be able to make predictions and explain afterwards why it didn’t happen.


However, the current scandal of politicians claiming thousands of pounds for expenses they have no right to claim from tax payers’ money raises this mistrust to a new level. The scandal exposes politics as something that has unfortunately not changed since ancient times.


Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914) captured this time-old concept when he wrote that “Conservative politics is a strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles; the conduct of public affairs for private advantage.”


This is expressed also by Stanley Baldwin (1867-1947) who wrote in Economic consequences of peace that “the parliament are a lot of hard-faced men who look as if they had done very well out of the (First World) war.” 


The history of politics has changed drastically throughout the ages and particularly the last century. However, this has not changed the fact that politicians are portrayed as corrupt people principally interested in their own benefit rather than the welfare of the people they should be serving.


Granted, one can say that this is true about humanity as a whole, but we will explore in this article this phenomenon in politics.


One can say that the history of politics has had three stages, the third of which we are currently facing.


Politics used to be something that a person would do as a hobby. They would have a permanent salaried job and on the side would get involved in politics and the running of the country. They would serve the people for no arranged financial benefit. The people owed their welfare to these individuals who would give of their time and energy to represent them and help govern the country.


The second stage was in 1911 when Lloyd George decided that MPs should be paid a wage. He defended the £400 allowance as ensuring that those not wealthy enough to treat politics as a hobby could still serve: 26 years elapsed before MPs had their first pay rise.


Even as late as 1970, there were no regular salary reviews and the only extra allowance was £500 for a secretary. MPs had to make their own arrangements for attending overnight votes. Those who could not afford hotels slept in their offices.


But by the mid-1970s, with a more socially mixed Commons, a consensus that legislators should not be dosing on floors prompted the introduction of an allowance for overnight hotel costs. When MPs argued they could get a flat for the same price, it was extended to cover rent and, in the mid-1980s, mortgage payments. The second home allowance was born.


The leap from there to today's sophisticated ruses, "flipping" second homes by repeatedly changing which address is claimed against, allowing MPs to revamp a succession of houses on the taxpayer, or dabbling in buy-to-let, emerged largely in the late 1980s, after changes to the way Commons salaries were calculated.


The current annual salary for an MP is £64,766. In addition, MPs receive allowances to cover the costs of running an office and employing staff, having somewhere to live in London and in their constituency, and travelling between Parliament and their constituency.


This is the present third stage that we face today. It is worthwhile and profitable to be a Member of Parliament, as they receive a decent salary and live more comfortably than most of the general public.


When politicians are not being paid or paid very little, the public is not in a position to complain that their representatives are corrupt and are working for personal gain, even if that is indeed the case, as they are working pro-bono. The public can shun politics but should be largely grateful for the work they are doing on behalf of society. Whereas, when they are being paid a full salary the public can demand that they should not have personal advantage in mind but the sincere benefit of society.


On the other hand, one can understand that with MP’s being paid a salary they would be corrupt, since they are motivated at least partly by receiving a salary rather than genuine desire to assist society. Having politicians on a salary corrupts politics itself.


The conclusive point is, however, in today’s times when they are being paid a salary of over £64,000 per annum plus expenses, although this has corrupted politics, politicians however are not in any position to be selfish and corrupt themselves.


The fact that politics corrupts politicians, whether they are paid a salary or not, as illustrated by the revealing statement of Churchill, shows however it is not the issue of payment that causes corruption, but rather power itself that is central to politics which corrupts.


This problem of power that comes with politics is expressed clearly in ancient Jewish teaching.


Ethics of the Fathers (Pirkei Avot) debates whether one should reject politics and distant oneself from it or be merely cautious of it.


Rabbi Gamliel warns (Avot 2:3) “be cautious with the authorities, for they do not befriend a man except for their own advantage; they appear as friends when it is their benefit, but they do not stand by a man in his time of distress.”


This statement subtly differs from the opinion of the Mishnaic sage, Rabbi Sh’maya, who said (Avot 1:10) “one should hate mastery and do not seek familiarity with the ruling authorities”.


This is elaborated on in Avot de Rabbi Natan. It writes “do not strive for recognition by those who are in power, for eventually you are likely to be singled out, whereupon they eliminate you and confiscate your property”.


The 11th century Biblical commentator, Rashi, points out in this context, do not seek leadership or an appointed office from those who are in power for, although at first you will benefit from it, in the end it will harm you, for they befriend a person only for selfish ends.


An inexplicably harsh statement is found in the 5th century work of the Talmud (Berachot 55a), three things shorten a man’s life, and one of them is the assumption of power; thus the Biblical Joseph died before his brothers because he held the reins of power.


The difference between the above Rabbi Gamliel and Rabbi Shemaya is that Rabbi Gamliel was aware that sometimes it is necessary to become close to power for the needs and welfare of the community. He warns, however, that one should be cautious and suspicious of them.


Rabbi Shemaya had a more pessimistic view. He said people should distance themselves altogether from people in positions of power.


This selfishness that is prone to be found in government is illustrated by the fascinating story with Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai in 3rd century who lived under Roman rule in Israel. The Talmud (Shabbat 33b) relates that Rabbi Judah, Rabbi Jose, and Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai were sitting, and Judah, a son of a proselyte, was sitting near them. Rabbi Judah commented by observing how fine are the works of the Roman people. They have made streets, they have built bridges and they have erected baths.


Rabbi Jose was silent.


Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai answered and said “all that they made, they made for themselves: they built marketplaces to set harlots in them; baths to rejuvenate themselves; bridges to levy tolls for them.”


When these comments reached the government, they said “let Rabbi Simon Bar Yohai be executed.”


Rabbi Shimon and his son went and hid in a cave for twelve years until it was told to them that the emperor had died and his decree was annulled.


While these negative views of government pervade Jewish teaching, it also recognizes the importance of government and power. Ethics of the Fathers (Avot 3:2) says, Rabbi Hanina, the deputy High Priest, said, “Pray for the welfare of the ruling power, since but for the fear of it, men would swallow each other alive”.


This seems to be closer to the view of Rabbi Gamliel that government is necessary but nevertheless is inclined to be selfish, untrustworthy and corrupt.


This characteristic of politics is due to the influence of power on a human being. However the problem is more profound when politicians are paid by the public through tax payers and become similarly corrupt. It is not just corruption but borders on theft.


Maimonides, the medieval codifier of Jewish law, writes in Mishneh Torah there is a difference between a thief and robber. A thief steals in secret whereas a robber in broad day light. With the ability of the public to examine the expenses of the Members of Parliament and as paid dignitaries by the public, their misconduct can be considered robbery.


Maimonides writes furthermore (laws pertaining to robbery Ch.5:9) that there are those whose property can be assumed to have come through robbery, for their profession is based on immorality and robbery. One example, he writes, is custom collectors. This was clearly the case with ancient custom collectors, which does not apply today.


However, the role of politicians as selfish, untrustworthy and corrupt does not seem to have changed despite the many centuries and change of society and modes of government. There doesn’t seem to be any easy solution to this seemingly innate moral problem.


This problem is not exclusive to secular politics but is found also in Jewish history. During the second Temple period, the most sacred position in Judaism, the High Priesthood, was utterly corrupted by people who had only their own interests and ego in mind, to such a degree that for a period, there was a phenomenon that the High Priests did not survive and were dragged out of the Holy of Holies in the temple on the Day of Atonement. The sons of the Biblical Samuel were condemned for corruption and distortion. The book of Isaiah (1:23) is mainly concerned with condemning the ruling class of Judea for corruption and abandoning of moral principles.


The question is therefore is corruption a necessary characteristic of politics as Churchill suggested?


The Jews were instructed (Deuteronomy) when entering Israel to appoint a king. This gives an insight into the concept of a king and government as a whole. According to Miamonides, the role of the king was to be a moral example to the people, guide them in an ethical way of life and connect them to the A-lmighty.


They are not essentially meant to be positions of power enforcing their will over the people. This is a secondary function to the main role of the king which is to bring the people closer to the A-lmighty and a moral way of life.


This role demands humility, as is found by the ancient king of Israel, King David, who was of total humility and servitude to the A-lmighty. This is illustrated powerfully in the chapters in the book of Psalms.


If the foundation of politics is humility and adherence to a higher moral being, the power of politicians that accompanies government office will indeed be guided by selflessness and devotion with no place for lies, theft and corruption.


Comments on: Is politics innately corrupt according to Jewish thought?

leon yoseph leiner wrote...

i just found your site tonight, and in going through some subjects, i came to this article, which i found relevant to my searches and questions. i thank you for your work and words here, i found some helpful angles for myself. But i wish to comment if you let, re ''the custom collectors, which does not apply today'' : if you will look into the legality of taxation over subjects, you will find MANY ILLEGAL TAX LAWS PASSED over subjects. This is especially becoming a real issue in the USA, where the IRS is being found to be ''an agent to the Crown of England'', and has no real lawful rights to take taxes from commoners, but ''by the might of their hands'', which is robbery. This is probably the situation in England too, but it's kept hushed, that the public not wake up to the rulers ways. i suggest you check this claim of mine, and make the necessary change in your words on your article, that reflect ''what is so and true'', even if not politically safe to do so. Time's passings are the only true-er judges of our actions. And May G-d Help you too rabbi :)