making local government more ethical
Lawrence Lessig's excellent new book Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress—and a Plan to Stop It (Twelve, Oct. 5, 2011) is about Congress and mostly about campaign finance, but it is also an important look at institutional corruption that has some valuable things to say that are relevant to local government ethics.

Lessig, who is director of the Edmond J. Safra Foundation Center for Ethics at Harvard University, came to government ethics in an interesting fashion. As a law professor specializing in copyright law, he sought to make out-of-print but copyrighted books available to the public. But his efforts, as reasonable, as clearly in the public interest, and as consistent with the Constitution (which actually mentions copyright) as can be, went nowhere. Instead, copyrights were extended more and more.

Institutional Corruption
Lessig came to realize that what caused these extensions, institutional corruption, is "the gateway problem: until we solve it, we won't solve any number of other critical problems." True reform, in any area, is impossible as long as the current institutional situation remains. Therefore, he switched his focus from copyright to government ethics, with an emphasis on campaign finance.

This third blog post on Philip Zimbardo's book The Lucifer Effect looks at some ways to deal with situational forces.

Recognizing Our Limitations
One of the college students who played a guard in the Stanford Prison Experiment said later, "I was actually beginning to feel like a guard and had really thought I was incapable of this kind of behavior. ... [W]hile I was doing it I didn't feel any regret. I didn't feel any guilt. It was only afterwards, when I began to reflect on what I had done, that this behavior began to dawn on me and I realized that this was a part of me I had not noticed before."

It is a part of most of us. But if we refuse to recognize this, as most of us do, we can do nothing to control it. This is the first-level act individuals are responsible for when they take a position of authority:  recognizing that they are capable of acting unethically in that position. This can be very difficult. People need help recognizing this, and they usually don't get it.

A year and a half ago, I wrote a blog post about a 2007 book by Philip Zimbardo, entitled The Lucifer Effect. I had read about Zimbardo's book in another book, Susan Neiman's Moral Clarity.

I finally got around to reading The Lucifer Effect, and I highly recommend it, despite its length and the small size of its type (for the middle-aged and older, this is a book that's better read as an e-book, where you can make the type as large as you want; I, alas, bought the paperback edition). In this and following blog posts, I will go beyond what I wrote in 2010.

Zimbardo's book starts with an experiment he did back in 1971, the Stanford Prison Experiment, where normal college students were assigned roles as guards and prisoners, and quickly became either abusive, silent as to others' abuse, or accepting of abuse to them even as they rebelled in some ways against it. The experiment shows how quickly we can all be shaped by aspects of the situations we are in and the roles we are asked to play, and thereby accepting of new, unethical norms.

Zimbardo also looks at others' experiments, as well as real-life situations, such as the abuses of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and other military prisons.

Local governments are hardly prisons, but they are situations that, especially where there are poor ethics environments, can place strong pressures on individuals to go along with unethical norms. The pressures involve us in loyalty, secrecy, becoming and remaining one of the gang, and playing the games necessary to raise funds in order to get re-elected and to appease those with power, whether in the government, in the party, or in the community (that is, large taxpayers, employers, developers, contractors, organizations, and their lobbyists).

In his book Ethics in Congress: From Individual to Institutional Corruption, Dennis Thompson discusses two tendencies that lead to the overlooking or obscuring of institutional corruption’s significance. Those who bring or judge charges tend to individualize misconduct. This limits the wrongdoing to the individual who is charged, exonerating other members of the legislative body, even if they are involved in similar conduct, and ignoring the local government's ethics environment.

Those who are charged, and their defenders, tend to do exactly the opposite. They institutionalize the misconduct. They emphasize the institutional aspects of the alleged misconduct in order to excuse the conduct ("everyone does it"), or they justify the conduct as an institutional privilege. They effectively argue that their conduct is less corrupt than it may seem, because it is common and acceptable inside the government. This sends the message that institutional corruption is not as serious as individual corruption.

A very lengthy article in yesterday's News Journal looks at the history of relations between Delaware legislators and Christopher Tigani, formerly the top executive with Delaware's top liquor distributor. The article provides an instructive look at corporate and personal influence.

The story is summed up in a former state senator's words, "People in Dover [the state capital] become intoxicated with power, and Tigani brought more intoxicants."

This is the second of two posts looking at Kathryn Schulz's excellent book, Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error (2010), as it applies to local government ethics. This post focuses on how to deal responsibly with one's mistakes, and to the extent possible prevent them.