Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Is Ethics in Government Possible?

HARBESON: Examining an ethical dilemma

>>SOUTHERN INDIANA — As I study political behavior, I’m always fascinated when an Indiana legislative session is about to end. The inevitable games and maneuvers that are thrown into the mix certainly illustrate how the system works.

My favorite interaction this year was when the Republicans were mad at the Democratic Speaker of the House for his premature gavel-beating that left them unsatisfied, and the Democrats were mad at the Republicans for holding legislation “hostage.” (Hostage must be the new go-to word when politicians want to focus attention on a particular cause.)

This behavior is typical of course, but did you notice that just before this customary end of session free-for-all, there was actually a period of peace among these fine warriors? Yes, the entire legislature found themselves in complete agreement over one of the bills running the gauntlet.

Not a single person in either chamber voted no on this bill. They celebrated their bipartisanship and I heard some were even making out in the halls. But I think that was just a rumor.

So what led to such a love-in? A bill for revisions to the current ethics law.

When a law is more about preserving the system than anything else you will almost always find both parties in agreement. Ethics laws can pass easily when things are looking bad for government as a revered system of order because politicians understand that, above all else, they must maintain the system that provides the power.

See, since the economy has tanked, state government has less money to spread around to keep people happy. The risk of discontent rises when this happens and it becomes vitally important to create a distraction so they use laws like these to make people feel better about government.

To keep playing the game, they need to pull your attention away from a deeper analysis of the system and instead focus on how “good” all the people are who have chosen to grab the reins of power. Ethics laws are great because they help maintain the illusion that the system has a moral foundation.

But you see how ridiculous it is when you start digging into the details of these ethics laws. For example, they changed the lobbyist reporting requirement for gifts and entertainment to legislators from $100 to $50. So, last year not reporting $101 was unethical but next year $51 is the magical ethical benchmark.

But if we’re going to talk about ethics, I don’t understand why these particular numbers and all the other related details painstakingly written in the code are even necessary. I mean, why should a legislator ever accept lobbyist gifts? Buy your own darn dinner, drinks and tickets to sporting events. This kind of basic ethical thinking is really not that difficult is it?

If their intent was to maintain the illusion that ethical behavior can occur in our system, it backfired on me because I’m right back to the realization that the system itself is unethical.

It doesn’t matter to me to learn of these gifts in $50 increments rather than $100, what matters is that my study of the system has shown it does not live up to any ethical behavior we value in our private lives. Ethical people don’t initiate force in normal everyday interactions, so why is it suddenly OK to do so if you’re inside a government system?

Have you ever stopped to think about the ethics of the system itself? If not, I encourage you to do so, if for no other reason than you know those in power don’t want you to do that.

SIGLINE— Sellersburg resident Debbie Harbeson successfully operates under strict ethical guidelines for accepting gifts from readers. But that’s probably because no one’s actually given her anything yet.

(Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

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