In Praise of Political Corruption: My Dinner with Marion Barry
Marion Barry, former mayor of Washington, D.C., has died, and it causes me to recall a dinner I had with him. I was at a restaurant long after he had been tossed out of office after having been caught on camera smoking crack.
Only a few months after leaving office, he was sitting at a booth with a few friends, and I decided to introduce myself.
I can tell you this: this man had astounding star quality. You could never tell it from television images but in person, matters were different. He lit up the room with a kind of aristocratic ambience. That night, he was wearing some tribal African hat that looked great on him. (I sort of wanted one myself but didn’t think I could pull it off as well.)
He just glowed with a sense of authority and friendliness. It was a genuine pleasure to be around him. He smiled warmly and welcomed me to the table and ask me to sit down at the booth.
We had a wonderful time. He was quick to laugh. He had a superb wit and buckets of charm that never stopped pouring. We talked about everything, mostly trivial things. Sitting with him and talking about anything made you feel like you were with the most wonderful person in the world. He was a good listener in every way, and took genuine interest in other’s opinions. He made you feel valuable.
And the truth is that I really admired him. Always had.
You see, Marion Barry never believed in the myth of “good government.” On the contrary, he was a strong believer in political corruption. He was entirely correct to hold this view.
Let me share a quick anecdote to make the point. After his first successor as mayor came to power, I was visiting with a bar owner in D.C.. I asked what he thought about the new mayor, who had won on a campaign of cleaning up government. He said: “she is terrible.”
“We have a fire code in here that limits the number of people we can have in here. I would never make any money if I enforced that code. In the old days, with Marion Barry, it was simple. The fire code enforcer would show up once a month and I would stick $100 in cash in his hand and he would go away. Now that is considered corrupt. The fire code enforcer shows up and I have to push my paying customers away. It’s terrible. If all the laws were enforced, I would go out of business!”
And so it was throughout the whole of D.C.. Under Marion Barry, business thrived. Public officials were paid to stay away and do something else. This was true for trash collection, labor law, environment regulations, taxes, you name it. It was 100% corrupt and gloriously so.
Everyone won under those arrangements. So long as there is government, the only real way to make the economy and society function properly is for government to be corrupt. The best form of government is no government. The second best form of government is corrupt government. But the absolutely worst form of government is that which pretends to be clean and good. That form of government does the most damage of any.
Marian Barry never took all this government stuff seriously. Laws were dumb, meant to be broken. He broke plenty. He encouraged others to do the same. He drove without a license, used faked car tags, didn’t pay his taxes, was often stopped for DUI but never arrested, and was accused and probably rightly of nonstop accepting of bribes.
To him, his job was to make things work better in the city, which meant very normal and natural arrangements between the rulers and the ruled: graft, bribes, payoffs, payola, corruption, and so on. This was the rule and it worked for everyone.
The people of the district understood this, and after his unceremonious dethronement, he was reelected only four years later, with the widespread support of the merchant class and the people. Everyone had just about had it with good government.
He was a beloved figure. Above all else, he taught the world the first principle of politics: there is no such thing as a government that is good that governs well.
The Economics of Life Itself : Beautiful Anarchy is the writing platform of Jeffrey Tucker, in which he covers economics, art, popular culture, and politics from a pro-liberty, anti-state point of view.