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July 21, 2015

Stanford economist proposes fourth branch of government to counter corruption

Stanford public policy expert Bruce M. Owen suggests a new fourth branch of government would lessen the influence of elites and special interests while better representing the middle class.

By Christina Dong

Bruce Owen, a Stanford expert in public policy, writes that a fourth branch of government composed of "disinterested professional umpires" would dampen the influence of elites and special interests while protecting middle-class Americans. (Andrea Izzotti / Shutterstock)

One way to end the problem of political corruption in Washington, D.C., is to establish a new branch of government that serves as an "umpire" against cronyism, a Stanford economist suggests.

Bruce M. Owen, the Morris M. Doyle Centennial Professor in Public Policy, Emeritus, wrote in a new article that due to the growth of government, systemic political corruption jeopardizes the equity and well-being of the American people.

Owen said he believes that reforms and remedies to deal with corruption that are under consideration would be ineffective and undermine basic constitutional rights.

The key, Owen said, is that American democracy is founded on Madisonian principles, which are based on elections and the rivalry among the existing three branches of American government – the legislative, executive and judicial branches.

So the solution is to establish a fourth branch of government of "umpires," as he calls them. He envisions members of this fourth branch being chosen from well-educated American citizens, 35 or older, with family incomes and assets in the middle third of U.S. family wealth.

"It would be an improvement," Owen wrote, "to rely on disinterested professional umpires to decide which legislative 'plays' are welfare-enhancing and which are not, particularly if the umpires themselves could be insulated from the political processes that lead to corrupt laws and policies."

According to Owen, nominations for the 11 umpire seats would come from the president, vice president, chief justice, speaker of the House, majority leader of the Senate, and minority leaders of the Senate and House. After confirmation by a two-thirds majority of the Senate, each umpire would serve a term of 15 years.

Owen says his proposal aims to counter the influence of elite interests and better represent the middle class, who he believes are the main victims of elite power.

Elections ineffective

Presidential vetoes and judicial review do not stem corruption, Owen said, as they do not reflect the public well-being objective. The U.S. Supreme Court also focuses largely on precedent and procedure, overlooking practical effects on the public welfare, said Owen, the Gordon Cain Senior Fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research.

Even elections prove ineffective, Owen maintains, given that "all agents (political representatives) are themselves unreliable to some degree because of self-interest" and voters are "woefully bad judges" of the performance of these officials.

Owen said the best way to overturn corrupt laws is to assign a new branch of government – the umpires – who hold the power to assess and veto legislation that fails to embody the goals expressed in the U.S. Constitution's preamble.

The framers asserted in the preamble that "the welfare of the people – their capacity to pursue happiness – should be a primary objective of government, no less fundamental than protection of life and liberty," Owen wrote.

Umpires would chiefly improve aggregate welfare by restricting what Owen calls "rent-seeking," or the advancement of elite interests without concern for other interests or for the economy as a whole.

He wrote: "The output of law will not be perfected by welfare-oriented umpires, but at least welfare and equity issues will have a place, and an institutional advocate, in the debate. As for legitimacy, what matters in the end is whether people trust the government to act in their interests. Despite being thoroughly undemocratic, the judiciary is seen as far more trustworthy than Congress."

Corruption's impact

In an interview, Owen said that corruption prevents the efficient production and distribution of goods and services throughout the economy. For example, this occurs when resources are denied to the poor and redirected to the rich because elites spend billions of dollars lobbying for their interests.

Elite interests that succeed through corruption each have narrow objectives, and they each only marginally reduce American well-being. But the overall effect is cumulative, he maintained.

"Even though each successful interest increases its share of the pie at the expense of other interests, the political process as a whole may result in every interest, strong and weak alike, ending up worse off in absolute terms. The accompanying distribution of well-being may be one that even the winners find unattractive," Owen said.

Corruption of this variety, rather than bribery or extortion, is the focus of his paper, he added.

Fair-minded umpiring

Owen said he believes his umpires would be more effective than other suggested reforms of the political process – such as political expenditure limits, constraints on lobbying, and reforms of the administrative process and congressional procedures.

The umpires would be "far more protective of the general welfare of the people, while no more difficult to implement than other reforms," Owen said.

He suggested this is a logical extension of the already-existing Madisonian competition between branches of government, otherwise known as the system of checks and balances.

"It would still likely require a constitutional amendment," Owen said. "But at least the remedy would be effective."

For more Stanford experts on political science and other topics, visit Stanford Experts.




Bruce Owen, Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research: (650) 724-2404,

Clifton B. Parker, Stanford News Service: (650) 725-0224,


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