Scott Pruitt, undoubtedly the most corrupt EPA administrator in that agency's short history, and certainly among the most corrupt top federal bureaucrats in all of American history, finally resigned Thursday afternoon. He sent a letter to President Trump that — well, if it isn't angling for a pardon, it sure looks like it:
— Fin Gomez (@finnygo) July 5, 2018
There are a lot of points to make about Pruitt's wretched tenure. But one important one is how he behaved exactly like the conservative caricature of a liberal government bureaucrat — a grasping, greedy weirdo who had his hand in every cookie jar he could find. It shows what happens when a political movement bitterly hostile to government is put in charge of one.
As I have previously written, Pruitt clearly viewed the EPA as a totally illegitimate agency and understood his main policy goal to be working hand-in-glove with extractive industry to delay, undermine, or destroy as many regulations protecting the public as possible. He seemed to truly want to leave no child brain unpoisoned. In that sense, he was not corrupt in the sense of just doing whatever the man handing over the bribes wanted — he clearly was personally invested in the brain-poisoning agenda, and felt it was thus completely aboveboard to constantly collect bribes, favors, and handouts from people and industries with a stake in EPA regulations. (See here for an extensive list of his mind-boggling corruption.)
But what I failed to appreciate back then was that he was also personally corrupt in a frankly bizarre fashion. He did get an astoundingly cheap room from the wife of a top energy executive, but then was repeatedly late with the rent, and refused to leave for so long that they had to change the locks on him. He abused his staff, forcing them to run out to get him expensive treats and high-class lotion, and even making them put hotel charges on their personal credit cards and then refusing to pay them back. He approached Chik-fil-A trying to get his wife a franchise location, and asked his aides to find her a job paying at least $200,000. It was the kind of unimaginative, penny-ante corruption and domineering behavior you get from someone with zero scruples who is drunk on power but none too bright.
Libertarian economists have cooked up a doctrine called "public choice theory," which is an attempt to model the conservative instinct that government regulation can never work. The argument, in brief, is that if people are assumed to be sociopaths concerned with nothing but their own narrow pecuniary interests (or "rational agents" in the language of the trade), the government will always tend to be corrupt, because bureaucrats will make regulatory decisions in their own interests.
Scott Pruitt shows that if you buy the premise, this is basically right! But the problem, obviously, is in the assumption. No possible government ethics rule could wrung efficient or honest governance out of Pruitt. But neither have most other American government officials been as ludicrously crooked as him.
Behavior like Pruitt's chews away at the roots of the nation. For any advanced society to work well, public officials must behave with virtue. They must disregard the temptation to abuse their powers of office for their own personal benefit. Public agencies must have an espirit de corps making it honorable and praiseworthy to govern in a neutral and fair fashion and shameful to abuse one's position for oneself. And blatant corruption should be strictly punished.
Obviously no place is 100 percent free of corruption. But it is not remotely impossible to run a country that gets pretty close to the ideal. America is not close to it, and it's getting worse fast (though it's important to note it hasn't been for long before Trump took office as well). But look at New Zealand or Norway for examples of nations where dignity and virtue are still meaningful concepts among public servants.
The fact that Pruitt — like John Yoo, Gina Haspel, or Henry Kissinger before him — hasn't been serving a jail sentence for the last year demonstrates how deep the moral rot in this country has gone. If we want to avoid future petty tyranny and corruption, at a minimum America must rediscover how to punish corruption, and the value of public virtue. The way to start is by removing Republicans from power.