That Quaint Thing Called “Ethics”…

A recent article in New America Weekly argues that we Americans need to clean up our understanding of corruption. We tend to think of corruption as the sorts of outright bribery encountered in many other countries, where “doing business” has often required greasing the hands of public servants. If no money has changed hands, Americans tend not to see an ethical problem.

The author of the article—a social anthropologist— argues that we need to expand our definition of corruption to include “rigged systems.”

According to Gallup, the notion that corruption is widespread has gained enormous traction in recent years. With results like this, it’s not hard to see why Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have so much appeal. When so many people see the system as rigged and corruption as endemic, citizens are naturally attracted to outsiders, because they themselves feel like outsiders in a game they were set up to lose.

This state of affairs—with so many people self-defining as outsiders in a democratic society—makes it all the more urgent that we redefine corruption. Because unlike communist and many post-communist countries, where few believe(d) in either the system’s version of itself or its ability to deliver on it, the United States has traditionally been a country of believers—where people largely bought into the promise of their system. That is how it should be in democratic society.

The article lists several examples of systemic corruption—from the banking practices that cratered the economy, to the conflicts of interest of military figures who sit on corporate boards while advising the Pentagon on procurement—and the failure of mechanisms to insure accountability.

We need to understand how corruption manifests itself in America in 2015. We need to ground accountability in the ethics of the broader society. Democratic societies run on trust. A civic society can flourish only when the public believes the system is accountable in a real, not performative, way. Without that trust, perception of corruption will only worsen and the ranks of outsiders will swell.

As I have repeatedly noted, a major contributor to this lack of accountability is the current absence of genuine journalism, especially what we used to call “investigative journalism,” and particularly at the local level.

When local media report only on the “what” (new parking meters, new development projects, new public purchases) and ignore the “who” and “how” (dealmaking, cronyism, procedural shortcuts)—when columnists and reporters dismiss legitimate concerns about the “how” as partisan bickering unworthy of investigation—we fail to hold our elected officials accountable, and we feed the growing distrust that acts like sand in government’s gears.

Rigged systems are complicated, and a lot more difficult to combat than bribery and other, more blatant forms of self-dealing. It’s easy to shrug and conclude that “this is just how things get done.” But the integrity of the democratic system is ultimately far more important —and its absence far more consequential—than individual acts of dishonesty.

Quaint as it may sound, ethics matter. And ethical public behavior requires a culture of ethical accountability. “Trust me” doesn’t cut it.