Re-moralizing Public Service

Graft or corruption is a modern crime.  It presupposes the existence of a modern bureaucratic State and a culture of law.  Strictly speaking, there was no graft in traditional societies ruled by custom.  It was not illegal for a ruler to help himself to the community’s wealth and not provide for the needs of his followers.  But it was always immoral.

In modern times, law took the place of custom, and legality replaced morality. The enforcement of obligations became the particular responsibility of the officers of the  State, rather than the burden of every person acting as a moral self.  Graft and corruption appeared mainly as deviations from the external rules of legal-bureaucratic rationality, rather than as violations of moral responsibility.  Moral judgment became stunted in the normative soil of legal cultures.

Herein, I believe, lies the great paradox of any campaign against graft and corruption.  To be truly effective, such a campaign must mobilize moral impulses against what is essentially regarded only as a legal wrong.  It seeks to re-moralize public service at a time when the science of profit-seeking and power-seeking places greater value on the ability to exploit the ambiguities of the law, rather to enforce its spirit.  In a world that has lost the ability to be moral, the victor can only be the one who hires the cleverest lawyer.

Can a campaign against corruption go beyond demanding full transparency in the conduct of government and the deployment of the full force of the law in those rare instances when the guilty party has been caught red-handed?   For many this is probably more than enough.  But for those who aspire to a world of moral accountability,  this is nothing but theater.  The stress must shift to the moral correctness of personal action, rather than remain fastened to the legal unassailability of public actions.

The sociologist Zygmunt Baumann summed it up so well:  “What is… attended to, publicly scrutinized and most hotly discussed (today) is the morality of the politicians, not the morality of politics.  It is how the persons in the public view behave, not what they are doing – their personal morality, not the ethics they promote or fail to promote – the personally corrupting, not the socially devastating effects of political power – the moral integrity of the politicians, not the morality of the world they promote or perpetuate….

“There is nothing wrong with the public interest in the moral purity of those who occupy public places; people invested with public trust need to be trustworthy, and prove it.  What is wrong is that, with all the attention focused on the moral integrity of the politicians, the moral deterioration of the universe they administer may well go on undisturbed.”

The events of the past week – the Ozone disco tragedy and the Marcopper Mining environmental catastrophe – have dramatically illustrated for us the consequences of such moral deterioration.  Most investigations of graft and corruption have tended to highlight only the immorality of those in public office.  They have not paid sufficient attention to the greed and criminal irresponsibility of those who solve their corporate problems by resorting to shortcuts and bribing public officials.

Business leaders often complain about graft and corruption in government. But many studies have shown that behavior in the corporate world has been far from being morally exemplary.  Reputable global firms have been known to use well-connected law offices in the host country to offer bribes just to garner contracts.  They may call them gifts or commissions or finder’s fees, but they have the same effects as bribes: i.e., preferential treatment and suspension of standards.

It is not always true that established firms prefer the stability of strong legal cultures to the capriciousness of feudal societies.  It is truer to say that companies that are already dominant in the field, by virtue of hard work or clever maneuvering, would be predisposed to preach the virtues of legal stability and contractual relations.

Those who are secure will naturally want the protection of stronger laws and better enforcement.  But those who are still striving to get in or to get ahead will prefer the arbitrariness of politics.  Business does not really expect the State to be moral.  It only expects it to be fair at least, when it cannot always be in its favor.

I believe it will take a while before politicians and government functionaries can learn to say no to graft and corruption.  For it is what subsidizes politics. In many societies, including possibly ours, graft has become the raison d’être of politics. There is a greater chance of moving towards a re-moralized world when business itself begins to set new ethical standards in its dealings with government and the larger community.

Until then, politicians and public officials will continue to steal while scrupulously adhering to legal form, and the mass media will continue to expose and heckle them with no hope of reversing an entrenched practice, and the public will continue to lose and become more cynical.  This chain has to be broken somewhere.

We must continue to hope that in the not-so-distant future, a critical mass of Filipinos in business will demand ethical behavior from government as a selfimposed  rule and as a condition of their own social responsibility.  There must be a lesson to be learned from all the tragedies that have been happening to us in the past week.  It might well be to rescue moral accountability from the welter of the simply legal.


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