making local government more ethical

Albert Hirschman on Conflicts Between the Private and the Public

I recently read a fascinating classic study by Albert O. Hirschman (Institute of Advanced Study) called Shifting Involvements: Private Interest and Public Action (1982). This book focuses on the various tensions between private consumption and public action. It only touches on government ethics issues, but what Hirschman says is worth sharing. For example:

Action in the public interest is thought of as being confused with idealism, with dedication to a cause, if not with sacrifice for the common good.  How surprising it is then to discover ... that political activity often involves one in a very different set of activities:  the making of strange alliances, the concealment of one's real objectives, and the betrayal of yesterday's friends -- all of this of course for the sake of the goal. ... In the process he may well violate the prevailing ethical code to a far greater extent than he ever dreamt of doing when he was merely pursuing his own personal gain in private consumption goals.  This experience can of course be so dismaying and so contrary to original expectations as to produce an immediate withdrawal from public life.  But the opposite reaction is also possible and perhaps more common:  a heady feeling of excitement is generated when the consciousness of selflessly acting for the public good is combined with the sensation of being free to overstep the traditional boundaries of moral conduct, a sensation that is closely related to that of power.

Hirschman also provides an interesting point of view of corruption:

Take a person who has been heavily involved in public affairs and, as a result, holds some public office, but has now become disappointed for one reason or another; one way in which he can respond to his new set of private versus public preferences is by taking a bribe.  What has been called the "unblushing confusion of the business of government with the promotion of private fortune" often occurs after the first flush of enthusiasm for public service has given way to a more jaundiced assessment of the prospects for improvements in the public happiness. ... [C]orruption becomes a determinant of further, more profound disaffection, which in turn sets the stage for more corruption. ... This cumulative dynamic ... thrives particularly in an ideological ambience where the private and the public spheres have come to be sensed as strictly separate and even opposite, so that any blurring of the confines seems incongruous or immoral. ... The unblushing confusion of the public and private spheres ... prevailed in most countries up to the nineteenth century and is still today in evidence over broad areas of the globe.  There was in fact a long period during which the only, or the most expeditious, road to wealth was by way of political power and public office.

It is worth remembering how unusual our political culture is, especially in historical terms. Government ethics is an aspiration that, like democracy itself, goes against historical precedent, if not human nature. But, of course, it is human nature to rise above what is referred to as human nature.

Finally, Hirschman powerfully defines the problem with appearances of impropriety:

The public mode does not tolerate any admixture of the private:  probably because it is always under the suspicion of being really self-serving, the appearance of any explicit private objective in addition to the public one will serve to annihilate the credibility of the latter.

Robert Wechsler
Director of Research, City Ethics
rwechsler@cityethics.org
203-230-2548

Visitor (not verified) says:

The blend of public and private interests is alive & well in the US, especially at the level of local government.

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