Oppressing the rich and powerful
December 13, 2007
As long as bribery – of the direct, money-under-the-table kind – is not involved, abusing government power in a Western style government system cannot be punished more severely than by removal from power. That is, an elected official pursuing policy that is perceived by the public as damaging to the interests of people cannot be sanctioned in any way other than by not being re-elected. For example, a congressmember who tries (or succeeds) to push through legislation which allows the release into the air of pollutants that can cause the death of tens of thousands of people cannot be prosecuted as having some responsibility for those deaths.
Applying other types of power – say economic power, or a position of influence through control of a media channel – in order to exert disproportional political power for nefarious purposes is completely unpunishable. Lobbyists, for example, who promote bills that favor the interests of a certain industry over those of the public cannot be held accountable in court. A columnist who advocates a war that would (or does) result in mass killing cannot be prosecuted as having some responsibility for the disastrous policy.
In other words, under the system of government in the West, having power has no strings attached. There is a definite upside – the ability to influence public policy in a way the is convenient to the powerful – but no downside. This increases the allure of power and the risks associated with its concentration. This runs squarely against the principle of checked power that is ostensibly at the core Western government systems.
The situation in Ancient Athens was very different. Since any Athenian citizen could prosecute any person in front of a citizens’ tribunal for crimes against the public interest, exerting political power had serious risk. Therefore, being a person of power in Athens – a prominent political speaker or general – was a dangerous position. Even so much as making a motion in the assembly (an act that placed the maker among a small political elite) was risky to some extent since the maker could be held liable in court and if found guilty, punishment could range from a fine to death. The risk was not a theoretical one – many powerful people did face trials and many of those were convicted and punished or were forced to flee.
Of course, many of the accused convinced the jury that their policies did not or were not meant to hurt the public, and were acquitted. It is interesting to note, by the way, that if a prosecutor failed to win at least a fifth of the votes of the jurors, that prosecutor would be held liable himself – this is another example of the exertion of political power having a downside.
Two predictable arguments against punishing political abuse are that doing so would deter skilled and virtuous people from political activity and that (in the case of punishment of someone advocating harmful policy) it introduces constraints on free speech.
To counter the first objection, it can be argued that people who believe the policies they promote would serve the public need not be deterred. Even in the case that policies do not work as intended, a lack of malice should be sufficient to guarantee an acquittal in a trial. It is also interesting to note that despite the risks involved, there was no shortage in contenders for political power in Athens – many of whom were members of the aristocratic or wealth elites. It seems that even when the risk of prosecution exists, the lure of power (whether because of selfish reason or because of altruistic reasons) proved strong enough to overcome it.
The second objection relies on a misapplication (often a deliberate misapplication) of the term “freedom of speech”. The term should be reasonably interpreted as meaning the ability of citizens to engage in the expression of their opinions in a manner that is equal to the manner that is available to all other citizens – talking to their friends, writing letters to the editor, displaying bumper stickers, etc. Having control over a channel of mass media is a completely different matter. It is the kind of “speech” that most citizens do not have and never will. As such, it could legitimately be subject to different rules than regular, true, speech.
A third, more weighty objection to the possibility of prosecuting abuse of political power is that such a process is itself open for political abuse. Strong political players can use such a process to further their purposes by arranging the prosecution of their political opponents. This is indeed a considerable risk, and one that can be countered only by giving the public direct control over the courts. Again, the Athenian system gives an example as to how this can be done – when prosecution and judgment are carried out by regular citizens, the interests of the people can be reasonably expected to be represented.