The corruption blame game

The easiest thing in the world to do is to blame corruption on those institutions perceived to be primarily responsible for the morals of a society, namely, the churches and the schools.  This attitude exaggerates the role of priests and teachers as determinants of the everyday conduct of individuals in the modern world.  Why not blame the family instead, where one’s basic values are first learned? Or the mass media, which today command an ever-growing share of people’s time?   Or, the leaders of government for failing to set an example of honorable conduct?

“We were the only Catholic country in Asia for 400 years.  Please ask the bishops why we are the most corrupt nation.  That should answer everything,” Isabela Rep. Rodolfo Albano III said in a glib retort to Archbishop Angel Lagdameo’s recent lament over the Philippines’ shameful reputation as the most corrupt nation in Asia.

The truth of the matter is that blaming the churches explains nothing. All over the modern world, the influence of churches has become more restricted.  To the extent that they offer a sense of community, they may continue to be filled with church-goers.  But, almost everywhere, churches have found themselves relinquishing their comprehensive hold on the lives of their members.

This is more than just a crisis of the churches.  It signifies the universal decline of a generalized moral code that used to bind society together.  Traditional morality has long taken a backseat to modern law. The voice of conscience can now hardly be heard above the counsel of legal technicians. Thus, nowadays it hardly matters anymore that something may be immoral; all that is important is that it can be shown to be not illegal.

This reality is a natural consequence of the growing differentiation of institutions in modern society.  The boundaries between law and religion, between politics and the economy, and indeed between the public and the private, are constantly being negotiated in the nation’s basic law.  This process is far from being smooth however.  In societies like the Philippines, the transition to modernity has been particularly troubled. Our modern institutions have failed to operate properly because of the persistence of pre-modern values nurtured by gross social disparities.  In the meantime, the old brakes on conduct are fading away faster than the new institutions could take hold in a rapidly changing society. The result of this is a kind of “payfor-play” ethos that privileges the role of money and political power in the running of society.

Obviously, corruption is not a unique affliction of our society.  Just as no moral system can prevent sinfulness, so also no legal system can totally stamp out criminality.  And so it should come as no surprise that one of the most brazen instances of corruption involving a government official has recently erupted in the most modern society in the world – the United States of America.  This is the case of Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, who has been accused of, among other things, trying to sell to the highest bidder the US Senate seat recently vacated by President-elect Barack Obama.

The activities of Blagojevich, a Democrat, have been monitored by government investigators for the last five years.  Using authorized wiretaps and listening devices, agents pieced together conversations that painted a picture of this corrupt official’s unethical practice. The Washington Post reports: “As agents sat rapt at their listening posts… the governor said he would use three criteria in filling Obama’s seat: ‘Our legal situation, our personal situation, my political situation. This decision, like every other one, needs to be based upon that. Legal. Personal. Political.’

This is a fascinating quote.  It sums up in exactly three words – legal, personal, political – the principal coordinates of a modern public official’s circumstances.  The legal tells him what he can and cannot do within the limits of the law.  The personal tells him what he needs to do.  The political tells him what connections and resources he can deploy or leverage in order to get what he wants.  Strikingly absent is any reference to what is right or wrong, or what his conscience commands him to do.

Blagojevich may be crude and brazen, and, in the words of US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, he may indeed have “taken us to a truly new low,” but the Blagojevich attitude toward public office is not exceptional.  Many think it is the norm.  Jack Shafer, who writes for the online Slate magazine, believes so: “If Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich is immediately guilty of anything, it’s of making overt what other politicians make covert, and doing so while the wiretaps roll.”  In short, what makes him different from the others is that he got caught.

This is not as cynical as it may sound — especially not in the context of Illinois politics.  The governor that Blagojevich succeeded is himself in jail serving a 6-year sentence for corruption.  Therefore what is truly interesting about America is not that corruption has persisted, but that the corrupt do end up in jail.

For, if one looks at the matter more closely, it will be clear to anyone who cares to see that the cure for corruption in the modern world is not to be found in hortatory sermons, moral crusades, or congressional exposes, but in the dogged pursuit of evidence and the honest-to-goodness prosecution of crooks.  Obviously, this is only possible if the justice system is not itself compromised.

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