Saturday, April 9, 2011

Can You Relate?

HARBESON: Relatively speaking

> SOUTHERN INDIANA — Clark County Commissioners are sure in a mess, relatively speaking anyway. People are concerned about a conflict of interest because they hired the son of one of the commissioners to work for the county highway department.

The hiring came under scrutiny when other employees with more years of seniority were laid off and Commissioner Ed Meyer’s son was not.

Whether or not the commissioner’s son should remain in the position over the other employees is not the issue. The issue here is whether politicians should ever be involved in hiring relatives.

Government officials have consistently demonstrated a serious inability to see ethical issues obvious to those of us standing outside the coercive institution. At minimum, a politician should have enough sense to excuse himself from making any decision concerning a relative. Yet, we rarely see this.

Of course, hiring relatives also happens in the private realm. Large and/or publicly-held businesses try hard to avoid these situations and often have specific policies in place to protect against possible conflicts of interest, but close relatives often work together in small businesses.

So, there’s nothing inherently wrong with hiring relatives.

If a private company chooses to hire relatives, it’s a risk they take, like any other risk. If at some point, emotions get in the way of good business decisions, then the company faces the consequences. Those uninvolved need not concern themselves at all.

In addition, hiring relatives in the private market can be a positive move. Many companies gain goodwill when they promote their business as family-owned and family-operated, which obviously means relatives are working together.

New generations try to maintain the trust earned by the hard work of previous generations. These businesses will point out how long the business has been in the family, assuring customers that the basic values which made the company successful remain the same.

If people outside the family choose to work for such businesses, they voluntarily accept any consequences that may arise when relatives work together. Employees and customers are free to leave if they see issues or have concerns. So hiring relatives is simply not a problem in the private market. But things change when we move to a coercive, monopolistic system.

When controversial actions occur inside government, we are often treated to ridiculous excuses when those involved are questioned. In defense of this specific situation in Clark County, several government officials said that hiring relatives is extremely common throughout Clark County government. As a matter of fact, we’ve been told that “tons” of relatives are employed in county government departments.

This particular excuse is known as the “everybody does it, so it must be OK” defense. Most of us learned by kindergarten that just saying “everybody does it” isn’t an acceptable reason for explaining an action. But to politicians, the “everybody does it” defense is supposed to be considered a valid reason and should completely shut down any further discussion of the issue.

What’s interesting about such excuses is that when governments admit such truths they are always used as a means to continue doing what’s always been done. These truths are never used to open serious discussion as to the wisdom of continuing the current mode of operation.

Unlike private family businesses, governments just don’t go away due to bad management practices. As a matter of fact, bad management is often a good way for governments to grow.

If, after hiring Aunt Lulu, politicians learn that she just can’t quite handle the job, well then they can just hire Cousin Willy, too. After all, they’re spending other people’s money.

Sellersburg resident Debbie Harbeson has “tons” of relatives, but she’s pretty sure there’s not a Lulu in the bunch.

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