Government Ethics: If Only Angels Were to Govern!

By Gilman, Stuart C. | Phi Kappa Phi Forum, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

Government Ethics: If Only Angels Were to Govern!


Gilman, Stuart C., Phi Kappa Phi Forum


If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on Government would be necessary. In framing a Government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the Government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself: A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the Government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.

-- James Madison, Federalist Papers #51 (1787)

Democratic government is always fragile. Yet democratic government is something most Americans take for granted. Through skill, luck, insight, tinkering, and persistence, the United States has become one of the strongest models for democracy in the world. Certainly, geography, natural resources, and the diversity of its people have contributed to this success. However, we often ignore the institutional fabric and the ethical values and, structures that under-gird the great American democratic experiment.

For the average citizen, the term "ethics," including government ethics, seems abstract. Punsters even suggest that it is an oxymoron. The reality is quite different. Since the 1970s, ethics systems have become dominant at both federal and state levels in the United States and to some degree have become models for the rest of the world. However, by and large the systems have little to do with imparting values and fundamental ethical principles. Instead, government ethics systems emphasize compliance with laws and regulations. And, the vast majority of these laws and regulations focuses on conflicts of interest.

These legal structures are often based on fundamental principles, codes of ethics, and codes of conduct. However, often little ties the aspirational values in these codes or principles to what is often overly complex legal guidance. For the most part, government ethics is currently a list of "don'ts" with very little explanation as to why government officials should do the right thing. Often, the most complex of legal discussions obscures even the "don'ts." This having been said, our surveying this landscape of government ethics to understand both its potential for guiding ethical conduct and the lurking ethical problems that still confront us as a democratic society is a worthwhile endeavor. The point of all ethics systems is to reinforce the public's confidence in the institutions of government. If such systems fail at this purpose, they are paper structures that can actually increase the public's cynicism.

GOVERNMENT ETHICS

Until the Watergate scandal, government ethics was a hodgepodge of rules and regulations that forbade certain forms of conduct without a reasonable framework or institutions to provide advice or enforcement. However, Watergate was the turning point for ethics in the United States. In 1978, the government sought to implement a compliance-based approach to ethics to prevent the gross misconduct that had occurred during Watergate -- when government ethics had not yet been defined -- by passing new legislation (such as post-employment restrictions) and creating several new institutions. Within months of each other, the federal government created the first six inspectors general (there are now more than sixty), the provision for appointing Independent Counsels (made famous by Ken Starr), the Office of Special Counsel (to protect whistleblowers), the Federal Election Commission, and finally the Office of Government Ethics to provide interpretation, guidance, financial disclosure, and education on the ethical obliga tions of all employees.

The U.S. government's own reforms of government ethics implemented in 1978 were designed to be both carrot and stick: some institutions were created to provide guidance and protection for those who did the right thing, and other institutions were created to ensure effective punishment if laws or rules were violated. …

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