Commentary: Andrew Steele: Ethics in government is about more than following the rules
By Andrew Steele firstname.lastname@example.org March 26, 2013 10:40AM
Updated: March 26, 2013 12:04PM
There’s been much talk recently about “ethics” in public office, and the training programs offered by the Shared Ethics Advisory Board to which several units of government, including the City of Crown Point, belong.
Generally when you hear people talk about ethics in this regard, though, all they’re really desiring is that officials follow the rules and obey the law.
The key to that is making it more likely rule-breakers will get caught. One of the reasons corruption, especially the financial sort, happens is because of the existence of fiefs and power centers that make it possible to get away with it. Eventually, they tend to be caught, but often the damage is done.
A greater degree of checks-and-balances and transparency would probably do more to solve the problem than anything else. Despite the popular perception, I doubt there are any more unethical people in government than in the private sector.
Ethical training is in vogue, and I suppose helping fundamentally honest people learn how to deal with morally ambiguous situations, or helping them decide how to react when they suspect or know someone else is breaking the rules, can be useful.
But the more interesting ethical issues in public policy don’t involve crooks or how to catch them. They involve structural issues dictated by political boundaries.
Closing schools in the poorer, largely black areas of Northwest Indiana is, as a practical matter, far different than closing schools in the poorer, largely black areas of Chicago. Here, not only are such closings accepted without much protest, wealthier areas are at the same time spending large amounts of money to build and renovate schools. In Chicago, similar closings are done only after exhaustive studies, and are still the subject of debate over fairness and equal treatment.
From an ethical standpoint, the situations are essentially the same, but political boundaries in Northwest Indiana change ethical responsibilities in ways that blunt debate and absolve many residents of responsibility.
Similarly, the issue of crime, especially violent. Resources, especially police officers on the street, can help bring about significant reduction in violent crime when they’re concentrated in areas where the most violent crime occurs. The areas tend to be small, and in big cities, with big police budgets, resources can be concentrated on scales that make a difference. That’s the right and the practical thing to do.
But again, political divisions and subdivisions in places like Northwest Indiana structure attitudes and responsibilities in very different ways. The ethical and practical don’t align as easily.
“Regionalism” in Northwest Indiana concentrates on meta-issues like economic development and micro-issues like library consolidation. To do any more would meet great resistance, because too many people enjoy division’s biggest benefit — shielding from the big ethical questions.