THE IDEAS THAT RICH and poor are equal before the law and that the vote of a rich man counts just as much as that of a poor man are two of the most radical ideas in human history. They are, of course, the essence of democracy.
But money matters everywhere else in society, and it threatens to crowd out democracy. A rich person can purchase a finer house, a nicer car, better food, more effective schools, more courteous service. Why should his money not purchase more political influence?
This paradox is the profound radicalism of the democratic idea. And on all fronts, it is threatened by the resurgent power of money.
The multimillionaire fugitive Marc Rich certainly did not settle for equal justice under the law. Instead he bought himself a pardon.
It is poetic justice that the mass revulsion against the Rich pardon and against the Clintons' taking expensive White House souvenirs is eating into the former president's planned hundred-thousand dollar speaking gigs. But it is appalling that the outrage against the Clintons for stealing White House china is upstaging what should be greater outrage at President Bush for quite possibly stealing the entire White House.
The Bush administration wants to repeal the estate tax, as a favor to the richest 2 percent of Americans. This past week some of the richest of all, led by Warren Buffet, George Soros, and William Gates Sr., warned that this move would be devastating to charities and philanthropies, which are institutions motivated by service and compassion, not profit. America has always had a balance between these rival principles. But the balance is near a tipping-point.
Congress may pass a weakened version of the McCain-Feingold bill, which would restrict unlimited ''soft money'' contributions made by corporations and individuals to political parties - which then launder the money for use in election campaigns. But most incumbents like the system the way it is. And since independent groups, under the Supreme Court's current interpretation of the First Amendment, can still contribute unlimited sums to attack or support candidates, the McCain-Feingold bill will not restrict money in politics, but only divert it to more creative subterfuges.
At the state level, several states, including Massachusetts, have enacted Clean Money reforms. These encourage candidates to take only very small contributions, which then trigger public funding of their campaigns. However, because nominally independent groups may contribute unlimited sums, groups covertly affiliated with rival candidates could still wage stealth campaigns using telephone banks and issue ads against targeted candidates, as the NRA has done in the past. And good-government candidates limited by the Clean Money rules could not raise the funds to fight back. So money still talks louder than votes.
The academic research establishment and hard-pressed hospitals are making terrible bargains with pharmaceutical and biotech companies. These deals bring new money to these supposedly public-spirited institutions but are both addictive and corrupting. Unlike peer-reviewed research sponsored by public agencies with no financial stake in the conclusions, business sponsors tend to reward results deemed profitable.
Here in Boston, there is a cat-fight between America's most literate talk show host, Christopher Lydon, and the managers of WBUR-FM. It is - what else? - about money. Lydon, who has built a huge audience, is paid well over $200,000, a generous salary for public radio. He wants an equity share in the money he generates for the station. But the managers of WBUR, which functions more like a commercial business all the time, want the money for their own empire.
Guys, this is public radio. A commercial radio station never would have hired Lydon. The show is too intelligent. The whole institution is supposed to be about values other than purely commercial ones. Can't we park the money-lust at the door, out of respect for the audience? America has plenty of other institutions devoted purely to profit.
Keeping democratic and extra-commercial values alive in the world's most fiercely capitalist society is a labor worthy of Sisyphus, the figure in Greek mythology condemned by the gods to spend eternity pushing a boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back down again.
The French existentialist Albert Camus ended his reflections on the Sisyphus metaphor with the provocative line, ''One imagines Sisyphus happy. ''
Happy? Not exactly. Resolute - always.
Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect. His column appears regularly in the Globe.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company