We Must Enforce, Not Bureaucratize, Ethics Law

Houston Chronicle

Typically after every scandal (especially in Washington), there is a cry to “tighten the ethics laws.” And so they are tightened, or at least lengthened, to grow more whenever the news media or the opposite party discover a new political sin to decry.

This is what I call the “bureaucratization of ethics”, in which the remedy to alleged unethical behavior is the creation of more paperwork. In such a legalistic environment, government officials are judged not on how well they act but on how well they filled out some official form.

This is, to be sure, a question of morality more than law. But, whatever religious faith we might have, we must admit that it is far easier to issue a lengthy regulation than it is to change one human heart.

“Of all tools used in the shadow of the moon,” Herman Melville wrote in Moby Dick, “men are the most apt to get out of order.”

This is why we have ever-widening ethics laws without ever-widening ethics. People determined to flout propriety and the law will do so, no matter what the tonnage of official forms they must complete.

Those in the public eye do need guidelines to proper behavior, and this category includes not just politicians but corporate executives, too. Sometimes violations occur not out of brazenness but out of ignorance, forgetfulness, or the modern crime of insensitivity.

The best ethics rule I ever heard on the question of accepting gifts was given by a Navy lawyer who worked for me in the Pentagon: “If you want it, you can’t have it.”

It was not a lawyer but the late Houston Chronicle gossip columnist Maxine Messinger who spoke a broader rule of good conduct. Messinger at one point had a drive-time radio show on which she recycled tidbits from her morning column. She closed every program by warning her listeners, “Remember: If you don’t want to hear about it on the radio, don’t do it!”

It is also a good general rule to place one’s loyalty on the highest possible level. Many an error becomes tragedy and in turn becomes an offense at law when corporate or government officials are guided by lower, shorter-term interests and considerations than higher ones: Oneself, before company or country; one’s boss, before shareholders or the citizens; one’s organization, before the law.

For years, those worried about the spiritual health of the United States have said we have lost our moral compass. The truth is actually more worrisome: Most people have such a compass, a personal code of behavior, and use it. The problem is that the hand of that compass points in different directions than it used to. It points in the direction of lower (rather than higher) loyalties.

This was the grim conclusion I made several years ago as chairman of the Board of Visitors of the US Naval Academy when it was rocked by widespread cheating on an electrical engineering exam.

When the case was investigated, it was learned that the guilty midshipmen had cheated in order to help each other. That sounds reasonable, doesn’t it – helping your friends?

These clean-cut kids had persuaded themselves that they were acting honorably, if not quite by the rules. But it was exactly the sort of lower-order loyalty – the bending of the moral compass arrow – that brought grief to the Naval Academy and, we might add, to great international businesses right here in Houston.

Faced with the immutable facts of human nature, civilized people from the dawn of time have had to resort to enforced rules of conduct – to laws – to inspire or frighten others into doing what society considers proper. Thus we have ethics laws for government officials and “corporate compliance” for business executives.

Probably the best thing government or business can do is regularly instruct its personnel about those rules and the consequences of violating them. And, when violations occur, as they will, government and business must enforce those rules. The aim is not punishment but a reminder that standards of conduct exist and that ethical people are expected to live up to them.

For that is all we want: Ethical people, not saints and not prisoners.

“I am not a saint,” a former prisoner, Nelson Mandela, told a Houston audience in 1999, “unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.”

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