Capitol Alert

Jerry Brown's law school prof warns against 'moral escalation' in politics

Leave it to Gov. Jerry Brown to include in a veto message a reference to a 50-year-old essay in the Federal Bar Journal that makes its point with examples from Plato, the New Testament and traditions of the native American Tlingit people.

A ritual practiced by that Alaskan tribe forms the basis for the title of “The Purity Potlatch” by Bayless Manning, one of Brown’s law school professors from his days at Yale in the 1960s. Manning went on to become the dean of Stanford Law School whose achievements were honored by the U.S. Office of Government Ethics ten years before he died in 2011.

Brown referred the essay in vetoing Senate Bill 1443, a measure incoming Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León wrote in response to a spate of ethical crises in the California Senate this year, including two senators charged in separate cases with taking bribes. The Los Angeles Democrat’s bill would have reduced from $440 to $200 the value of gifts public officials may receive, prohibited them from taking certain gifts, such as tickets to concerts and sporting events, and barred all gifts from lobbyists.

“Politicians should be subject to various constraints,” Brown wrote in vetoing the bill. “I would point out, however, that some balance and common sense is required.” He then wrote that Manning’s 1964 essay makes “this very point with insight and clarity.”

In the “potlatch” tradition of the Alaskan Tlingit tribe, Manning wrote, two people duel by taking turns destroying things that are valuable to them. The winner, the essay says, gains “great community prestige by reducing himself to material ruin.”

A similar dynamic is at play in American politics, Manning wrote, where politicians are susceptible to “moral escalation” as they work to prove their virtue to voters: “A major consequence of this special character of our politics is that in matters touching public morality we are inflation-prone.”

Manning cautions against the propensity to increase regulations on political behavior, saying “these restraints are no longer really designed to affect substantive behavior. They are now in large measure ritualistic.”

The essay then goes on to foreshadow, 50 years before the fact, the dynamic between California’s Legislature and governor in 2014:

“Now and again a legislator succumbs to the temptation to garner glory in the public eye by assuming the role of New Broomsman, Cleaner of the Public Stable, and Conservator of the Public Conscience,” Manning wrote.

“Legislators will eventually be driven to vote on restraints to be applied to themselves, and when the vote comes, the legislators will vote for them, in part because there may actually be abuses that need correcting and in part because they will feel that they must take their stand for virtue.”

The essay closes with what Brown may have read as a direct message from his law school prof:

“We may hope that there will be men in high office who will have the insight, courage, and political security to resist unlimited moral escalation and the purity potlatch.”