Ethics: Inconspicuous In Its Presence

March 27th, 2014 4:52 pm


I participate in several government-oriented blogs and it seems as if, whenever “government ethics” comes up, participants lament over the sad state of modern public integrity.  Perhaps it is like everything else, folks tend to think that their “times” compare miserably with the glorious state of the past.  I also used to take this cynical view, but as one who has been engaged in government ethics work and who has studied the histories of the Federal bribery and conflicts of interest statutes for the past two decades (yes, I am that boring), I have come to a far different conclusion.

This is not to say that we can rest on any set of laurels or that way have become angels; we cannot and have not.  Government integrity requires vigilance.  That said, in a broader sense, we ought not be so hard on ourselves.

I think it is important to remember first, that you cannot make government pure as the driven snow.   The Founders of this great Republic were realists of the highest order.  In fashioning our government, they factored in the true nature of the specie that would be the beneficiary of their labor.  The human desires for power, both individual and institutional, were quite beautifully and purposely placed in conflict.  That’s the high end.  The process is described best in common parlance.  In the very title of his 1936 book, American political scientist Harold Lasswell tabbed “politics” as the art of “Who Gets What, When, How.”  Government, then, is simply the delivery vehicle for “politics.”  Wherever and whenever someone (government or otherwise) is dispensing a “what,” there will always be those who will want more of it than others, want it quicker than others, and will be willing to expand on the “hows” of getting it in order to achieve the first two requirements.  This is the neighborhood of reality where American government ethics grew up and lives to this day.      

Second, it’s important to view our corruption in a global and historical context.  Can we do better?  Sure.  Transparency International would rate the U.S. about 25th of leading nations in terms of corruption (German and Scandinavian countries do well here).  That said, we could be far, far worse.  But, if you focus on nations with a strong multicultural makeup, we don’t look too bad after all.  We won’t even mention America in the same breath as third world nations, or even the former Soviet bloc, where bribery is an accepted method of accomplishing political ends.  Moreover, as one who has studied the history of our anti-corruption and ethics laws (yes, I am an insufferable bore at parties), I can tell you that we are far better off in the twenty first century  than we were in 1912 (the end of the gilded age), 1862 (amidst rampant Civil War procurement frauds and the “Spoils System.”) or 1812 (where congressmen personally contracted with Federal officials for business).  We didn’t even have a general anti-bribery Federal statute until 1853.  Now, we have conflict of interest statutes that prohibit actions which, even if done with clean motive, look corrupt.  We also have Standards of Conduct that preclude actions that appear like conflicts of interest.  Actions punishable today would have been perfectly acceptable or perhaps looked at askance, but would not be punishable, 150 years ago. 

In a sense, however, this “higher standard” is a dual-edged sword in terms of public image.  For as the standard is raised, more people publicly fall beneath that standard.  Oh, and another thing, every time someone falls publicly beneath the new standard, the public demands that Congress pass new laws that raise the bar ever skyward.  At the same time, the more visible failures, the less distinction the public makes between big failures (e.g., swinging billion dollar contracts in return for a job) and small ones (e.g., engaging in gambling on a government computer).  And, yes, two more things about ethics laws:  (1) each new law must be interpreted consistently with each earlier and still-existing law that touched upon the same subject; and (2) any effort to eliminate outdated, poorly-constructed, or contradictory statutes is seen by political opponents, public interest groups and the media as politicians trying to free themselves of ethical restrictions.  Did I forget to mention that the main-stream media generally only portray government in the most negative of lights.  Meanwhile, the private sector person only has to avoid what is blatantly criminal.  A relatively low-standard to meet, comparatively.  Yes, corporations are very active these days in touting ethics, but the focus is not the same.  You can get fired for violating these rules; government employees can get prosecuted.

All-in-all, what I’m saying is that Americans need to realize that for the type of nation we are, we’ve come a long way.  Not far enough?  No.  yet, emerging nations come here to learn about our system of government ethics.  In short, we ain’t perfect, but ain’t bad, either.