“Maybe, just maybe, the legislative and judicial systems have been corrupted, by, dare I say it, corporations?”
—Ethics Alarms commenter and OWS warrior Jeff Field, in his comment regarding the weekend post, The Marianne Gingrich Ethics Train Wreck
I don’t know how Jeff reaches the conclusion that the judicial system has been corrupted by corporations. Judges, unlike legislators, do not grow rich as a result of their inside knowledge and corporate connections. Judges, unlike revolving-door Congressional staffers and lawyers, do not generally come from corporate backgrounds. The fact that a judicial decision benefits the interests of some corporations, and many do not, does not mean that the decision was not just or was influenced by more than persuasive legal arguments. Those who believe that begin with the biased and untenable position that any decision that benefits a corporation must be, by definition, wrong.
So let me put that dubious assertion aside as the result of excessive reformer’s zeal and crusader’s license, and deal with the general proposition that corporations corrupt the legislative system, and society generally. Well, sure they do, but the statement is misleading, and, I would argue, meaningless because it places disproportional importance on the corrupting influence of this one, admittedly important, societal force.
Yes, corporations can be corrupting influences. So can government, and the lure of public office. The news media is a corrupting influence on the legislature, and upon society generally. Religion corrupts; as does popular culture, with its celebration of empty celebrity, glamor and wealth. Non-profits and charities are corrupted by their tunnel vision of specific worthy objectives to the neglect of others; the civil rights movement corrupts, as does feminism and all other advocacy efforts, which often, if not usually, succumb to an “ends justify the means” ethic, which is unethical. Indeed, freedom corrupts, as does dependence. Cynicism corrupts, and corrupts with a vengeance. Ignorance corrupts; so does the belief, however well-supported, that one knows it all. Ideological certitude and inflexibility corrupts.
Education, and the cost of it, corrupts. Sports, both professional and collegiate, corrupt people, students, and institutions. Science corrupts; technology corrupts. Heaven knows, the internet corrupts. Leisure and success; triumph and defeat; wealth and poverty, love and hate, desperation, patriotism; kindness, loyalty, sex, lust; intellectual superiority, beauty, physical prowess, passion. Talent corrupts. Kindness and sympathy too.
Self-righteousness. Fear. Worry. Envy. Stupidity. Zealotry.
And, as we all know, power and the love of money.
All of these and more corrupt human beings and the institutions, organizations and governments that they make up. If individuals are corruptible, something will corrupt them, as sure as the sun rises and the quinces ripen. To focus upon any one of the limitless and abundant sources of corruption and to say, “This, above all, is the cause of our problems” is naive and unfair. By all means, we must seek ways to limit the opportunities for corruption and the damage it can do, but we must also recognize that the ability to corrupt does not mean that something or someone does not or cannot contribute much good to society as well. Heroes can corrupt, as we saw in the tragedy of Joe Paterno, but we need heroes. Leaders can corrupt, and often do, but we still need leaders.
Ultimately, the best way to stop people and things from corrupting us is to understand what corruption is and how easy it is to be corrupted. Our inoculation is ethics, understanding right and wrong and how to recognize both, and learning to recognize when we are biased, conflicted, or being guided by non-ethical or unethical motivations. Shifting the blame for corruption away from ourselves is comforting, but intimately counter-productive. We have the power to resist corruption, just as it is within out power to select public servants who are not likely to be corrupted. It is our responsibility to do so.