The Meaning of Corruption
Commenter Michael responded to Justin’s statement from earlier in the week concerning “the faulty attitude under which the public sector has become corrupted” by saying…
The public sector is not corrupted. These generalized comments, written as fact are what prompts me to draw the proverbial line in the sand and defend the public sector without participating in any worthwhile debate due to the preconceived “fact” that my employment status and ethics are questionable, and my work and compensation tainted.I’m going to cover a fair amount of ground in a short space, so there may be a gap or two…
To understand the rift that has opened between public sector organizations and the public, the meaning of corruption has to be understood in its broadest sense. The term corruption as used in news reports usually denotes acts of thievery and dishonestly committed by a public officials or employees. Corruption, however, also suggests something that happens before the corrupt act, i.e. how it is that surrendering to temptation might change a person.
The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr succinctly and poignantly discussed what he called “the corruption of self-interest” in his essay on the realism of St. Augustine…
It is this powerful self-love or, in modern terms, “egocentricity”, this tendency of the self to make itself its own end or even to make itself the false center of whatever community it inhabits, which sows confusion into every human community….(What, you mean Reinhold Niebuhr and St. Augustine aren’t the first sources you think of, when discussing public labor tensions in Rhode Island?)
Humans are susceptible to the temptations that arise not only from the self-interest expressly highlighted by Niebuhr, but also from an interest in helping those who immediately surround them. Most obviously, personal interests widen to take into account an individual’s family and immediate friends. In the case of many public employees, the widening beyond strict self-interest frequently takes another form. When someone regularly deals on a firsthand basis with people in need of real help — and in the case of public safety workers, people who are in real danger — it is natural to prioritize the needs of those making or answering calls for help ahead of the monitions raised by people not immediate in distress, who are asking for relief from the strains they feel are being created by publicly-imposed obligations. But just like self-interest is not inherently bad, but leads to problems when pressed too far, so too can the impulse to help those whom we have most direct contacts with create problems and confusion, when effects of our actions on people outside of our personal interactions are too severely discounted. No human being is immune to this, which means no human system is immune to this. (Well, maybe DMV clerks are immune. Whether you are right in front of them or completely out of their sight and mind seems to make no difference to how they treat you).
The social and political environment that individuals live in will either enhance or dissuade the potential for the corruption of self-interest that exists in all of us. We have learned from history that the potential is greatly enhanced when one person or group is given power over others to say that we’re taking from you what we deserve, that we will tell you how much you owe us, and that there’s nothing you can do to alter how much we are going to take. This is a dynamic that has created lots of turmoil throughout history. To maintain a functioning society that does not succumb to that turmoil, political institutions need to be designed to dissuade more than enhance this tendency of one group of people to try to take from another in pursuit of their personal interests. The emphasis is on the political here because political institutions are the most easily changed. Social systems can be changed too, but more slowly and with more unpredictable results. The laws of economics cannot be changed, no matter what liberals and progressives may think.
Unfortunately, right now in the United States, we live under a number of governmental processes that do more to enhance than to dissuade the inescapable potential for corruption that is part of the human condition. For a small example, consider the mischief with disability pensions from Rhode Island’s recent past. Were the people who took advantage of this flaw in the system granting them early “retirements” fundamentally different from people now? Are we going to confidently claim that we are significantly more honest than our predecessors from just a decade or two before? I think a more reasonable answer is that a badly designed system allowed the worst impulses that exist in everyone to be enhanced and acted upon.
For a more important example, consider the period of time where the union representatives on the City of Providence retirement board were allowed to vote themselves benefits, regardless of what the representatives accountable to the entire community might decide. The union reps voted themselves huge benefit packages, without regard to how paying for those benefits would impact the community. They didn’t outright want to hurt others, but since the union reps felt the positive effects of their decisions directly, while the negative impacts were on people they weren’t directly connected to, they didn’t care. This is a crystal-clear manifestation of Niebuhr’s concept of the corruption of self-interest sowing the seeds of confusion into the community.
To prevent the corruption of self-interest from running rampant through our government, we need to restore some basic checks and balances into our political systems that insure that government being responsible to all of the people. We cannot let one group of citizens make extreme long-term claims on a piece of the livelihoods and property of others, without expecting some very negative consequences. We cannot leave a future generation encumbered by circumstances they are not responsible for. It is our responsibility, as citizens in a democratic society, to design a system that passes along to the next generation as much of the stuff we know about making government work despite the limitations of human nature, while not saddling the next generation with our mistakes. Right now, we have a political system that too often exhibits an unfortunate tendency to do the opposite.