More than 200 people assembled in Hobart on March 11 to hear a panel of vigorous speakers explore the various dimensions of ethics in government. The discussion focused on officials, elected and appointed, who convert their power into personal gain. We call it corruption in the form of graft, bribery, nepotism, conflict of interest, being on the take, pay to play, and a host of additional names.
These serious matters cost taxpayers billions of dollars annually at the state and local levels. The abuse of power is not limited to certain states, counties or cities. It is found everywhere, but it is not the dominant characteristic of public service. The overwhelming majority of elected and appointed officials are honest servants of the people not looking for kickbacks or inappropriate advantages in their jobs.
Speakers at the meeting encouraged the audience to keep an eye on government, to be watchdogs, to endorse training government officials and workers about ethical issues. The culture of unethical behavior and the perception of public office as a private possession permit corruption to endure from one administration to another, in some cases for generations.
Ethics goes much further than not cheating the taxpayers by improperly applying their funds for personal gain. Ethics in government also involves doing the right thing and being effective.
The idea that citizens are taxpayers and nothing more leads to poor decisions. As consumers of services, we have other direct and indirect relationships with government beyond paying taxes. When we emphasize taxes, we focus on efficiency and often disregard effectiveness.
Take snow removal. It snows and streets are impassable. Crews come out, remove the snow, and normal functions resume. That’s what we want. That’s effective government.
Yes, we desire efficient government where funds are used honestly and in a prudent manner, keeping costs low. We don’t want all the contracts for snow removal going to the mayor’s friends and family. But removal of the snow is our primary concern. The possibility of saving some money in the process is desirable, but secondary.
This view does not condone illegal or unethical behaviors. But it adds a dimension to ethical government. Would we prefer perfectly appropriate contracting and a poor job of snow removal?
The essential ethical aspect of government, touched only lightly at this conference, is the need for government officials to do the right thing. Often, the excuse is made that there are differences of opinion as to what is right. This argument merely reveals an inadequacy of debate, sometimes disguising an unwillingness to oppose ill-informed views.
For example, is it morally justified to deny necessary services to the poor, the disabled and the disadvantaged in order to maintain low taxes on the wealthy? Is it unconscionable to deny unemployment or Worker’s Compensation in order to keep down taxes on workers holding jobs? (Many people believe that employers pay these taxes, but in all likelihood they are paid indirectly through lower wages for those at work.)
In Indiana and across the nation, arguments bubble concerning the effect on investment and the robustness of business if taxes are raised moderately. Those arguments are unfounded except in the mythology of the ignorant. We have a cadre of conservatives who would cut government spending in order to get people back to work. This is a fundamentally flawed idea.
To accept these positions, to honor them as valid expressions of personal values, is unethical. To avoid debate because your opponent holds a different view is wrong. That is why legislative minorities in several states have denied the majorities easy victories. Failure to cooperate with an unethical power is a commendable ethical stand.•
Marcus taught economics for more than 30 years at Indiana University and is the former director of IU’s Business Research Center. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.