Over the years, as chairman of BIZPAC, Palm Beach County’s political action committee for the business community, I have met with hundreds of elected officials and wannabe politicians.
Sometimes, to test their reactions, I will ask, “Are you aware that as an elected, you are a fiduciary?” Often, I get back a blank stare, as though the thought had never occurred to them. The quick-on-their-feet politicians sometimes reply with something vague, about how they have responsibilities to the voters who elected them. While true, that’s not the answer.
Very few electeds understand that as stewards of taxpayer money, that money cannot benefit them, even indirectly. Most electeds believe their stewardship involves some higher obligation to dole out as much taxpayer money as they can get their hands on, to support their constituents.
From my experience in this region of the state, perhaps one of six elected officials seriously consider taxpayer interests when they decide on financial matters. Taxpayers are treated like mute money trees, existing only to satisfy politicians’ wishes. Taxpayer wallets are merely an ATM, free to be looted for the money the electeds need to keep voters happy. The cleverest politicians pay lip service to taxpayers, but taxpayer interests are mostly ignored.
Elected officials are fiduciaries who must have a duty of undivided loyalty. That loyalty is shattered when they take any action that puts them in a conflict of interest with the public. So, with election season approaching, here is a clarion call for all politicians you know within earshot: Ask them if they agree that an elected official is a political representative with a fiduciary obligation to the people first, especially taxpayers.
This is not new news. The Founding Fathers recognized conflicts of interest and wrote a Constitution designed to impose fiduciary duties on those elected and appointed to office. Seventeenth-century philosopher John Locke wrote that a government’s power “stood in a fiduciary relationship to the people.”
That duty of loyalty requires the official to act solely for the people’s benefit, not his own. That is known in fiduciary political theory as the “exclusive-benefit principle.” It means that a politician’s conflict of interest can render him untrustworthy, contravening his duty of loyalty. When the public delegates power to a political representative, it creates a reciprocal duty that the politician must use that entrusted power in the sole, exclusive interest of the public.
Politicians breach their duty when they manipulate the political process for their own benefit, usually with an act that creates a conflict of interest. Examples include:
- Increasing their own salaries
- Gerrymandering political district lines for their own benefit
- Attempting to entrench themselves in office by using taxpayer money to buy votes or buy voter gratitude
- Increasing their re-election chances through pork-barrel spending of taxpayer money
Elected officials have a fiduciary duty to take from taxpayers nothing that violates that duty. While politicians represent groups with different interests, taxpayers are a special group: They put up the money that officials dole out to themselves, their government and most other constituent groups. The taxpayer, who ponies up the money that makes everything possible, is owed the highest loyalty of all. And yet, taxpayers sit low on most politicians’ totem poles.
But look around you at government officials you know. How many are really more concerned about the taxpayer, compared to all the grateful friends the politicians make when they hand out goodies paid for by you? Yes, the electeds use your money to curry favor and votes at election time. For that, they owe taxpayers a high obligation.
Here’s the question to ask the next time a candidate requests your support: If elected, do you believe you have a fiduciary obligation to the taxpayer?
It’s your job to figure out whether the “yes” is a lie.
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