Belated stock taking

Only a radical reduction in the government's role can reduce corruption significantly

A recent report by Transparency International ranking nations by degree of corruption has demoted Israel to 28th spot, right beside Oman. Israel scored 6.3 out of 10, a 17% loss since 2001. The report was published a short while after the 10 Days of Awe, when Jews take stock of their moral standing. Its charges force us to face a potentially dangerous degeneration of social mores. The Transparency report may be flawed, of course, as are most comparative international statistics. Since it is based on polls in which citizens subjectively rank the degree of their countries' corruption, and not on any quantitative data, its conclusions are questionable; indeed, France, evidently a seriously corrupt country, ranked 18th. Still, a look at the daily headlines reporting what seems to be a growing number of corruption cases in Israel, including in its law enforcement organs, should be cause enough for concern. Contrary to prevailing impressions, corruption has been with us since the first days of Zionism, albeit to a lesser degree. What is amazing is that despite the fact that Socialist Zionism always involved heavy public spending by bureaucracies, corruption was not rampant. This was partly because the Socialist ideology that came to dominate Zionism treated money making with contempt, and extolled the virtues of Spartan living. This deprived corruption of its chief benefits. Also, the Zionist enterprise was relatively poor, so there were consequently few opportunities for temptation. This has radically changed in the past decades. Increased prosperity was accompanied by the rejection of Spartan values. More and more Israelis became exposed to the sweet amenities of Western living - even some Orthodox MKs now sport Gucci suits. But the more dramatic change has occurred in the capacity of the state to make people rich, even filthy rich. The government's annual budget of $70 billion (55% of GNP) means that our politicians can help cronies secure lucrative government contracts. The government's control of 93% of all land, water and other natural resources, and its tight control of most other economic activities, enables politicians to dispense all kinds of favors, monopoly rents and other such "rights," licenses for highly lucrative imports (cars or electrical appliances, for example) and tax exemptions. Political favoritism can also win you exemption from costly regulations, and privileged access to money making activities, while entry barriers and high duties can protect political favorites from competition. IRONICALLY, OUR highly touted system of law has unwittingly contributed to the spread of corruption. Inefficient Israeli courts, bogged down in cases generated by excessive government regulation, allow people to break contracts with impunity. A lawsuit will cost a mint and can last a decade. When finally rendered, the judgment may be unenforceable. So its pays to break the law or cheat, especially since many Israeli judges still reflect the Socialist values they imbibed in their youth, and treat property rights lightly. Desperate creditors may appeal to thugs to collect defaulted payments. Israel is not only highly regulated, but it is also burdened with intrusive and unenforceable laws that the Ministry of Justice, an activist Supreme Court and eager legislators keep compounding. Growing corruption is a measure, then, of extensive government involvement in the economy in Israel as in Russia, France or other countries. Only a radical reduction in the government's role can reduce corruption significantly. But to wean Israelis from their blind faith in a benevolent government, a belief acquired during 70 years of Socialist and Statist indoctrination, is no mean feat. Many of our academics are crypto-Marxists who believe that massive state intervention is the way to achieve "equality." The belief in a benevolent government filters down so that many letters to the editor complaining about problems generated by government end with the plea: "why doesn't the government do something about it?" The notion that governments are the citizens' benevolent parents is deeply rooted. It was therefore remarkable to read recently in Makor Rishon an essay written by one Yaakov Schatz: "It Is For Our Sins That We Were Exiled From Our Land." Schatz not only claims that "Halacha [Jewish Law] prefers a state with a small bureaucracy that intervenes only minimally in the citizen's life," but supports this claim with many halachic references. He accuses the religious camp of ignoring halacha by advocating a strong state. Citing halachic injunctions again, he recommends a drastic reduction in taxes and government budgets, and the introduction of competition to education, allowing private schools and equal funding for all students. All our troubles, he sums up, come from one root: "We have been deluded by the immense power of the state, in contravention of the Torah law that demands its curtailment." One swallow does not announce spring, but it may presage the coming of many others, with spring finally arriving.
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