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Commentary: Politicans Can't Escape Human Nature When It Comes To Receiving Gifts


While their professional organizations discourage physicians from accepting gifts from corporations that may unduly influence their professional practice, no such strictures apply to gifting our politicians.  In this  edition of FM89's commentary series The Moral Is, philosophy professor Christopher Meyers of CSU Bakersfield says the public should also be wary of the  continues his earlier theme on the impact of the possible ramifications of allowing unlimited gifting to politicians.


In a previous contribution to “The Moral Is,” I discussed how even seemingly trivial gifts can alter physicians’ prescribing choices, sometimes to the detriment of their patients. In describing how such a conflict of interest can occur, I noted that humans seem to be hard-wired for ‘reciprocity’: When someone gives us a gift, even one of low value, we feel obliged to give something in return. This response is so primal, so basic to our nature, that we are frequently unaware of that sense of indebtedness; instead, we simply act upon it.

I find it implausible that the Justices are simply unaware of the scholarly consensus that shows how persons' judgment can be altered by gift-giving.

Since professionals must hold their clients’ well-being as primary, such gifts often represent a conflict of interest, as they motivate choices that one might not otherwise make and because those choices may not be in the client’s best interest. All this is why professional organizations like the American Medical Association have taken to strongly discouraging members from accepting any gifts and to requiring full disclosure of any financial relationships. 

When it comes to political giving, however, the Supreme Court has repeatedly concluded that such standards need not apply: Contributions to, for example, Super PACs may be kept anonymous and donors may give as much as they want – so long as there is no explicitly understood expectation of a direct exchange, or quid pro quo.

These standards emerge from a series of rulings in which the Supreme Court determined:

  • First, money is a form of free expression protected under the First Amendment;
  • Second, organizations are persons covered by the Amendment’s protections; and
  • Third, donations can be considered corrupting only when they meet the explicit quid pro quo criterion.

Each of the associated rulings warrants scrutiny, but I want to focus here on the last. In April’s McCutcheon v FEC, Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority, worded it like this:

“Any regulation must … target what we have called ‘quid pro quo’ corruption or its appearance. That Latin phrase captures the notion of a direct exchange of an official act for money. Spending large sums of money … [with the intent of garnering] ‘influence over or access to’ elected officials … does not give rise to quid pro quo corruption.” (Emphasis added.)

Since I find it implausible that the Justices are simply unaware of the scholarly consensus that shows how persons’ judgment can be altered by gift-giving, I am left baffled as to how they could reach this conclusion. Is it possible they believe the wealthy few who will be able to garner such “influence and access” will affect elected officials’ judgment only in ways that are to their constituents’ benefit? Or that somehow politicians do not have the same basic human instincts of reciprocity and thus are immune to such influence? 

Whatever their reasoning, one must be deeply disturbed by their conclusions and by the associated impact on our democracy. If you are like me, you want our elected leaders beholden to all of us, not just to the wealthy individuals and organizations who can buy such influence. 

Christopher Meyers is a Professor of Philosophy and Executive Director of the Kegley Institute of Ethics at California State University, Bakersfield. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the University or the Institute or Valley Public Radio. The Moral Is was produced by KVPR and the Bonner Center for Character Education at Fresno State. See more commentaries online at KVPR.org

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