Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Government corruption and cynicism

An excerpt from Robert A. Caro’s The Passage of Power (New York: Knopf, 2012), pp. 284-287, paints a disheartening picture of corruption in the U.S. government. The excerpt (which is well worth reading), records how, in the days before John F. Kennedy's assassination, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson was caught up in an escalating corruption scandal that at the very least might lead to his being dropped from the 1964 ticket, if not forced to resign as Vice President or to serve a prison sentence. Johnson had been involved in pay-for-influence practices so pervasive that it had turned a lifelong government employee, who had not earned more than $35,000 per year, into a millionaire many times over.

Johnson’s corruption preceded his lying about the role of the United States in Vietnam, which set the stage for widespread disillusionment with government. Since at least the Johnson presidency, U.S. citizens increasingly seem to feel distant from government and progressively more cynical toward the ideas of government “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” LBJ’s personal corruption mirrored his public persona of lying to the public.

Notwithstanding these gross foibles, Johnson did much good. He used his political power to push civil rights and social services legislation through Congress, ironically leading the nation in its greatest strides toward justice since FDR’s presidency. Had Kennedy’s assassination not occurred, Congress would probably have failed to enact most of this legislation.

Former North Carolina senator and presidential candidate John Edwards offers another high-profile example of a flawed politician. Edwards generated much enthusiasm as a populist advocate of justice and family values (his wife, mother of his four children, fought a losing battle with cancer) all the while having an affair funded with gifts from wealthy supporters.

I wonder who among us, if the truth were fully known, could pass a rigorous ethical exam. I suspect that disproportionately few with significant achievements in any field would be among that number. The Christian tradition suggests that temptation increases with each notable accomplishment and that the greater the temptation the greater the likelihood of succumbing to some temptation. Perhaps that is too great a price to pay for achievement. Remember that Jesus warned his followers of the difficulty that the wealthy would experience in entering the kingdom of God; perhaps the difficulty of the powerful and popular in entering the kingdom is even greater.

Complaining about corrupt government cures nothing. Instead, people can:

1.    Pray for leaders in all fields of endeavor;

2.    Work to lead as ethical a life, personally and professional, as possible;

3.    Develop healthy accountability mechanisms to aid in resisting temptation and to recover from ethical lapses;

4.    Refuse to succeed in any field of endeavor if the price of success entails unethical behavior;

5.    Invest the time and effort required to vote responsibly, i.e., on a factual knowledge of the issue rather than opinions shaped by the media or paid advertising;

6.    Reclaim government, struggling to make government once again of the people, by the people, and for the people.


Anonymous said...

John wrote... I agree with your analysis and your civic recommendations. But it made me think of the attitudes of the Founders of this country. You might describe their views of human-run government as cynical. Hence they set up a system of checks and balances. One might go further then and distinguish between 1. cynicism towards the whole process of citizen involvement, which leads to apathy, and which you rightfully criticize, and 2. a healthy distrust of human nature.

The latter appears to lead some to advocate more centralized power to corral corruption in the private sector, while leading others to advocate less centralized power to avoid corruption in the public sector.

George Clifford said...

Anonymous, The right type of cynicism can be healthy, as you note. I think one key factor is to remain optimistic, without becoming naïve about humans always being good. (PS: I'm sorry to be slow in responding, but have had problems accessing the internet the last few days.)