It’s got to the point that when I see the words “Ethics Commission,” or some similar bureaucratic nomenclature, I break out in hives.
It happened again last Saturday, when a longish essay from Joseph Centorino, Executive Director of the Miami-Dade County Commission on Ethics and Public Trust, appeared in the Miami Hurled.
[Update: it happened again just now. when I typed out that pompous title.]
Nothing Mr. Centorino wrote was obviously wrong or vapid, just mostly useless. The premise from which these commissions operate is so detached from reality that they lose their way from the very first step. They seem to take seriously the idea that corruption happens at least as much by accident as evil aforethought. And that’s fucking laughable.
Seriously — these elected officials, judges, and highly-paid bureaucrats honestly don’t know that taking free tickets, riding in lobbyists’ airplanes, and putting the relatives of their friends and donors on boards and committees is if not illegal, then ethically unacceptable? Really?
Talk about naïve. But then, he also alleges this:
There was a time in this country when anyone who held a public office was believed to merit being addressed as “The Honorable,” a reference that today is often given derisively. Sometime in the last few decades, we lost that sense of respect and honor for our leaders. Those in public service are the only ones who can recover it. They can be helped and inspired by better training and supported by value-driven civic institutions, but only they can build a culture of honor by putting loyalty to the public ahead of self-interest.
No, with all due respect, Counselor, there was no time in this country when holding public office merited anything more than fear and contempt, and that “Honorable” address was imposed by those officials on the lowly hoi poloi they abused daily. Just like today.
I can tell that he and Toto really miss Kansas.
Here’s the real problem. While I believe there’s a place for ethics training, I’m certain that empowering a panel of lawyers (with one exception) isn’t the way to get it done. Of the six members of the commission, it appears that perhaps just one — attorney Charlton Copeland — might have had some actual university-level training in the subject of ethics itself: he has a Masters Degree from Yale Divinity School. This is whack. If you want to install plumbing, hire plumbers. If you want to teach ethics, hire moral philosophers. That’s what they do.
Does any one of these august group know the distinction between utilitarianism and deontological ethics? Have they even heard of, let alone read and debated Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics? Are they versed in the traditions of Anglo/American studies that helped define the underlying premises of American jurisprudence; distinctions in right and wrong, moral culpability, freedom and responsibility, etc.?
You want your public officials to start thinking along these lines before they get too entrenched in the gutters where they practice their craft. In fact, you want these thought-provoking discussions to start at a much younger age, like in school and around the dinner table. Good luck with that.
But leaving all that aside — which is the way of the world anyway — in purely practical terms, if you want your public officials to behave themselves, you need two components. The first is a solid set of clearly stated rules with an effective enforcement system. But no rules, and no threat of enforcement can be airtight. Smart-asses abound, ever notice? What truly needs to be drilled into people even before they plunge into the trough we call public service is not just some sense of right and wrong (as opposed to legal and illegal), but the promise of severe punishment for violating their oaths of service. The ethics instructions provides not only the rules, but the justification for the punishment.
And no, shame won’t do it. Most of these hinds are utterly without shame — it’s one way they succeed in the public eye. I recommend financial penalties, prison time, and public floggings.
Obviously a panel of white-shoed lawyers and slippered academics is useless here. I suspect this is not by accident. The very same contempt for the public interest that dictates need for an ethics commission is at work in its creation and implementation. It’s all for show, a charade, window dressing. Lipstick on a pig. Etc. There are no better candidates because there’s no market for them.
What’s that? Why yes, since you ask. My degree is in philosophy, I’ve done graduate work in ethics, and I’d be happy to serve. For a price.