The concept of ethical standards of behavior for either corporate officers or government officials has become something of a joke in this bright, new century. Politicians seem utterly uneducated when it comes to discriminating between right and wrong, the media morally dead, voters hopelessly confused, the powerful cynical and smirking all the way to the bank. Petty offenders feel the full force of the law, but the serious criminals who buy elections, impoverish millions, and provoke wars that undermine society and governance are “too big to punish.” Are ethics and morality really too complicated to think about in our busy modern world? Not really—the answer is staring us in the face.
We are all held up to standards of behavior. Drivers must drive on the right, at least in the
This illustrates an arbitrary but quite valuable standard; head-on collisions
are inconvenient. Other standards are less arbitrary yet bizarrely more
controversial and far more studiously avoided. Minor bureaucrats are sternly
warned to avoid “even the appearance” of conflict of interest while
national leaders pursue self-enriching conflicts with few qualms and almost no
risk of punishment. Still, at least in some countries, ordering the murder of a
political opponent is deemed beyond the pale. Even for the most powerful
officials in major democracies, then, at least some standards exist. The
question, for those who care about the quality of governance, is how far to
carry these standards, how high the standards should be, and how rigorously the
most powerful officials should be held to these standards.
|No Empire Is Too Big to Fail; No Leader Too Big to Punish|
Are these just tedious hair-splitting issues for lawyers to argue behind closed doors, carefully protected from the prying eyes of the foreigners being bombed or the Americans whose mortgages have been stolen? Well, no, they are not; they are, in fact, rather clear-cut examples of a society that has lost its path to the degree that it can no longer recall its own values. These issues rest solidly on a simple principle that has been clearly stated for all to see more than once in our nation’s history. Abraham Lincoln did not “invent” this principle, but he may have stated it best half way through the war “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal…and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
That is the essence of “American values,” not slavery (on cotton farms or in Chinese factories), not genocide (of Native Americans or Palestinians), not the propping up of thuggish regimes that host our naval bases, not the protection of corporations that poison our commons, not neo-conservative wars of choice, not neo-liberal economic oppression. By what mental slight-of-hand did "national interest" come to mean the opposite of "the people's welfare?"