Do Ethics Laws Work? as Legislatures Continue to Strengthen Their Ethics Laws, Policymakers and the Public Wonder about the Results

By Kerns, Peggy; Sampson, Ginger | State Legislatures, July-August 2003 | Go to article overview

Do Ethics Laws Work? as Legislatures Continue to Strengthen Their Ethics Laws, Policymakers and the Public Wonder about the Results


Kerns, Peggy, Sampson, Ginger, State Legislatures


Since New York passed the country's first major ethics law in 1954, an extensive patchwork of such statutes has unfolded across the nation. Today, all 5O states regulate the conduct of public officials. States, coupled with the federal government, have arguably constructed the most detailed set of ethics laws that exists anywhere in the world.

"What has emerged, however, is not a clear system of rules, but an inconsistent and confusing patchwork," says Elder Witt in Essentials of Government Ethics. The result is a Byzantine array of public integrity rules and regulations that vary tremendously from state to state and even between the two houses of congress.

Calvin Mackenzie, author of Scandal Proof, a new book examining the effects of ethics laws on government, says attempts to legislate ethics actually have weakened political accountability. "The law is too blunt an instrument to define or ensure proper behavior," he says. "Public employees act ethically when they adhere to high standards of conduct and when they possess sensitivities that cannot all be etched in law.

"In creating an ethical government, the hard part is accomplishing what the law cannot guarantee," he says. "Ethics laws and regulations are designed to make government scandal proof, but no institution can be made scandal proof through regulation alone."

LOSS OF TRUST

"One of the reasons we pass ethics laws is to assure people we're ethical," says Kansas Senator Lana Oleen.

Ironically however, the proliferation of ethics laws has not translated into a high level of public trust. The biennial poll by the American National Election Studies asks citizens about their trust in government. The results indicate a steady decline in confidence from more than 60 percent in the early 1960s to less than 30 percent by the year 2000.

"There is a colossal loss of trust in our institutions, public and private," says Rushworth Kidder, founder of the Institute for Global Ethics. "We can't run a democracy this way.

Few, if any, empirical studies prove a correlation between ethics regulations and the behavior of public officials and trust in government. In fact, if based on conclusions of opinion polls, it appears that public skepticism increases as government enacts more ethics laws. When trust in government was at its highest in the early 1960s, there were no major ethics laws in the states.

So should we be asking what good have the statutes achieved? Has this accumulation of stricter laws actually resulted in more ethical behavior by government officials? If the answer is no, should we keep passing them to appease the public and create an ethical appearance? Or if laws do not make people more ethical, what does?

ETHICS AND ETHICS LAWS

There is a difference between being an ethical person and following ethics laws.

"Ethics is concerned with moral obligations. It refers to standards of conduct that indicate how one should behave based on moral duties and virtues," says Michael Josephson, founder and president of the Josephson Institute of Ethics.

"Ethics is rooted in moral character and anchored in ethical values and principles," says carol W. Lewis, professor of political science at the University of connecticut.

Ethicists say that one cannot discuss ethics without discussing values. Legislators agree. "Ethics is searching one's self for true behavior," says Senator Oleen. "It's being grounded in what is the right thing to do."

Indiana Senator Robert Garton adds, "It's about character, about what remains when others leave the room."

"Laws, on the other hand, establish standards of behavior that may or may not correlate with individual conscience," Josephson says. "Laws coerce from the outside, ethics control from the inside."

"Ethics laws are misnamed," says Lewis. "These are laws that forbid you from doing the last thing that someone else did, They are better described as codes of conduct, and they come into play 'post-hoc,' after the fact. …

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