making local government more ethical
On Saturday, I attended a one-day conference on Institutional Corruption sponsored by the Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University (videos of it will eventually appear here). Although local government was scarcely mentioned (there was one image of a painting that portrayed the 1930s machine in Kansas City, MO), many ideas that were discussed are applicable to local government ethics.

I will start with the ideas of Mark Warren, a professor at the University of British Columbia, not because he was the first or best speaker, but because, on the train to Boston, I read the online draft of his 2005 paper "Democracy Against Corruption" and found it fascinating. His talk at the conference presented some of the same ideas.

It's not every day that a neighboring town makes the front page of the New York Times. It's especially surprising when the reason is, at heart, a local government ethics problem.

The town is East Haven, CT (most recently in the national news for a part of it being overrun by waves during Hurricane Irene), and the problem ostensibly involves the mistreatment of immigrants in town by certain police officials. That's the criminal point of view. But the real problem is loyalty. The police, and certain town officials, put their loyalty to each other ahead of their loyalty to the town's residents. Four police officers have been indicted, one of them the head of the police union, and it appears that the union and the mayor are solidly behind them.

Henry Adams' 1880 novel Democracy is a must-read for those interested in government ethics. It's also a first-rate novel, full of wit, excellent writing, and a good portrayal of post-Civil War Washington. It's available free from Project Gutenberg, in six e-book formats.

The climax of the novel is an exchange between the Secretary of the Treasury (Ratcliffe, formerly a senator) and the novel's protagonist (Madeleine), a wealthy widow fascinated with politics. The exchange is all about government ethics. Here are a few wonderful quotations from the novel, including from the climax:

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).