Acton Institute Powerblog

How Future Choices Can Lead to Present-Day Cronyism

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Sometimes the current decisions we make today can affect the options that become available to us in the future time. For example, I may spend less money today in order to be able to spend more at a future point in time, such as during retirement. The name for this economic concept is “intertemporal choice.”

What we expect or desire to happen in the future can affect the choices we make now. While this concept may appear obvious, it can have significant implications when we apply it to certain groups, such as politicians.

Take, for instance, the problem of cronyism. Cronyism is a form of corruption that occurs when an individual or organization colludes with government officials to create legislation or regulations that give them forced benefits they could not have otherwise obtained voluntarily. But such cronyism doesn’t have to occur directly. Intertemporal choices, as economist Bryan Caplan explains, can lead to intertemporal corruption:

If a major corporation gives a U.S. Senator a ten-million-dollar “gift,” it’s likely to be punished as corruption. It doesn’t matter if the corporation protests, “We’re only expressing our affection for this fine Senator” or if the Senator bellows, “How dare you claim my vote is for sale!” However, if the same Senator retires, and the major corporation gives him a ten-million-dollar sinecure on its Board of Directors, it’s perfectly legal – and few demur.

The painfully obvious flaw with both norms: Intertemporal corruption is a wonderful substitute for ordinary corruption. A professor is unlikely to give an F to his current girlfriend; but he’s also unlikely to give an F to his future girlfriend. A Senator is unlikely to vote against a corporation that gives him millions of dollars; but he’s also unlikely to vote against a corporation that’s going to give him millions of dollars. What comes around, goes around.

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Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).

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