Eliot Spitzer and the Seduction of Crusader Politics

Hypocritical politicians manipulate system to serve their own agendas

Few politicians will have fallen as hard and fast from the summit of political ambition as New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, allegedly caught meeting with a prostitute. Indeed, Spitzer’s fall may reveal some important lessons about the limits of crusader politics as officials like Spitzer practice it.

Critics and political opponents of the governor called for – and got – his resignation based on the traditional justifications of ethical weakness and criminal actions. But let’s not overlook Spitzer’s political hypocrisy. He purposefully and willfully ruined reputations and careers based on allegations of the same behavior he now reluctantly admits to participating in.

As a crusader, Spitzer manipulated the legal system in ways that served his own agenda. He bullied, threatened, and strong-armed his opponents, frequently relying on specious legal arguments and the threat of litigation to remove those he believed were corrupt and unworthy of the positions they held.

Eliot Spitzer’s story is not a random or even unique one. It applies to a culture of politics that accepts a no-holds-barred approach to pursing political goals and allowing individual politicians to define for themselves the “public interest.”

Spitzer’s reign as attorney general was the stuff of superhero comic books and novels. The superhero rushed into a corrupt world, ridding it of evil so embedded in society and governance that regular law enforcement could not exorcise it. The superhero skirts the law to bring evil doers to justice. But, it’s okay, because the end result is a better society-in the superhero’s eyes.

In order to root out evil, the superhero has to be above and beyond the law-the rules that common men and women live buy. The superhero uses his guile and ability to raise above pedestrian social customs and rules to put down those he believes corrupt society.

But Spitzer lives in the real world and the Founding Fathers developed a government based accountability, checks and balances. In Spitzer’s case, separation of powers-that crafty principle of federalism that gave state and federal governments different responsibilities-is also playing an important role.

The particular crime bringing Mr. Spitzer down is also noteworthy. The most powerful man in New York politics is being subdued by a victimless crime-prostitution. He has admitted to participating in an expensive prostitution ring using the fittingly named Emperor’s Club VIP. Stockholders and investors were not defrauded. Corporate titans were not abusing their power. No one was robbed. No one’s property was threatened.

Mr. Spitzer will likely be prosecuted under the rarely invoked Mann Act, an early 20th century legal relic put in place to stop interstate prostitution. It is exactly the kind of shell of a law that Mr. Spitzer pursued with gusto to bring down those he personally targeted as corrupt and unworthy of their positions in corporate America. As New York’s Attorney General, Spitzer indicted, prosecuted, and jailed dozens of people for running “escort services” and “sex tourism.”

Mr. Spitzer’s family will suffer terribly from this mess. But these transgressions are Spitzer’s. They are not the fault of the entrepreneurs operating the Emperor’s Club or its other clients. They are the transgressions of a crusader who couldn’t see the hypocrisy of failing to follow the same standards he expected of everyone else, who acted above the law, and, in the end, is being held accountable.

Samuel R. Staley, Ph.D. is a senior research fellow at Reason Foundation and managing director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center at Florida State University in Tallahassee where he teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in urban planning, regulation, and urban economics. Prior to joining Florida State, Staley was director of urban growth and land-use policy for Reason Foundation where he helped establish its urban policy program in 1997.

Staley is the author of several books, most recently co-authoring Mobility First: A New Vision for Transportation in a Globally Competitive 21st Century (Rowman & Littlefield, 2008). Texas Gov. Rick Perry aid Staley and Moore "get it right" and world bank urban planner Alain Bartaud called it "a must read for urban managers of large cities in the United States and around the world."

He is also co-author, with Ted Balaker, of The Road More Traveled: Why The Congestion Crisis Matters More Than You Think, and What We Can Do About It (Rowman and Littlefield, September, 2006). Author Joel Kotkin said, "The Road More Traveled should be required reading not only for planners and their students, but anyone who loves cities and wants them to thrive as real places, not merely as museums, in the 21st Century." Former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters said, "Balaker and Staley clearly debunk the myth that there is nothing we can do about congestion."

Staley's previous book, Smarter Growth: Market-based Strategies for Land-use Planning in the 21st Century (Greenwood Press, 2001), was called the "most thorough challenge yet to regional land-use plans" by Planning magazine.

In addition to these books, he is the author of Drug Policy and the Decline of American Cities (Transaction Publishers, 1992) and Planning Rules and Urban Economic Performance: The Case of Hong Kong (Chinese University Press, 1994).

His more than 100 professional articles, studies, and reports have appeared in publications such as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Investor's Business Daily, Journal of the American Planning Association, Planning magazine, Reason magazine, National Review and many others.

Staley's approach to urban development, transportation and public policy blends more than 20 years of experience as an economic development consultant, academic researcher, urban policy analyst, and community leader.

Staley is a former chair for his local planning board in his hometown of Bellbrook, Ohio. He is also a former member of its Board of Zoning Appeals and Property Review Commission, vice chair of his local park district's open space master plan committee, and chair of its Charter Review Commission.

Staley received his B.A. in Economics and Public Policy from Colby College, M.S. in Social and Applied Economics from Wright State University, and Ph.D. in Public Administration, with concentrations in urban planning and public finance from Ohio State University.