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The Appearance of Impropriety: How the Ethics Wars Have Undermined American Government, Business, and Society Paperback – April 5, 2002
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One of the longest-lasting residues of Watergate is the vetting industry: a mountain of regulations, committees, consultants, and special prosecutors dedicated to detecting and/or eradicating something called the appearance of impropriety. But for all this effort, it's hardly true that people in government and business are more ethical than they used to be. That disconnection is the point of departure for this book. The problem that Peter Morgan and Glenn Reynolds address is that the notion that all this energy is directed toward--the appearance of impropriety--is horribly obscure (Is it a conflict of interest, Michael Kinsley once wondered, to have a second child?). It's also subject to political whims and fads and, most important, not all that connected to what we should really be bearing down on: actual impropriety. This is a lively, opinionated read that makes excellent use of learned historical and literary contexts to cast convincing doubt on the current conventions of public morality. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
To these authors, contemporary scandals are tempests in ethical teapots that obscure the substance of unvirtuous public conduct. Guided by episodes taken from Henry Fielding's Tom Jones and its appearance-versus-reality subject, Morgan and Reynolds energetically upbraid the "ethics establishment" that grew out of Watergate. Ineffective at rooting out substantive corruption, such as occurs in lobbying and campaign fund-raising, the ethical watchdogs--in the official bureaucracy, the press, and so-called public interest lobbies--fasten onto regulatory minutiae. Woe to the unwary so ensnared; even a Nobel Prize winner (David Baltimore) wasted 10 professional years defending himself and a colleague against a bogus scientific fraud allegation. Other examples the authors give, concerning plagiarism and election-posturing "anti-crime" legislation, are so deliciously preposterous that the reader is well primed for the concluding recommendations for reform. Presumably the authors would like to repeal the lot of post-Watergate enactments; instead they offer seven rules promoting ethical public behavior. A topical addition for active current-events collections. Gilbert Taylor --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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As Milton Friedman has pointed out, when government attempts to solve a problem, the solution is often worse than the problem itself. As "The Appearance of Impropriety" shows, when government was tasked with restoring integrity in government, the solution turned out to be an elaborate code of rules which, in effect, destroy integrity in order to save it!
As an attorney and a self-educated Watergate buff, I read all the whodunit books, explored countless "Deep Throat" theories, and read most of the standard Watergate tomes. Typically the period is portrayed as one in which America learned "hard lessons" in morality, then entered a "new era." During my college years I watched the morality play on television.
Eventually I realized the whole thing had been a triumph of hypocrisy masquerading as a triumph of morality, and I finally concluded that Watergate was a triumph of investigative journalism run amok. I was more cynical than most people even before I read this book, because I sensed that the "new", "more ethical" era was worse in a moral sense than the old era of corrupt backroom deals and cynical political skullduggery.
Authors Peter Morgan and Glenn Reynolds not only provided me with proof of my suspicions, but they demonstrate how the system the reformers created has come to rival the corruption of the past.
As they show, today's corruption is governed by an elaborate, appearance-based regulatory system in which compliance with the rules, by eliminating any real need for personal integrity, places honesty and integrity about on the level of compliance with such things as IRS codes or affirmative action quotas. Thus, the truly corrupt are enabled, and those with genuine integrity are burdened with humiliating and stultifying regulations which would keep many people away from public service. (As the authors note, Dwight Eisenhower was such a notorious rule breaker that it is doubtful that he could survive today's appearance-based scrutiny.)
Actual example of an ethics rule cited by the authors: "...[A] federal worker can legally accept pay for a "comic monologue" -- unless, that is, the government decides that the talk was actually an "amusing speech," in which case the federal worker could be fined $10,000 and drummed out of the service."
All of this and more can be traced to the post-Watergate explosion in ethics reform (a period the authors call "the Big Bang"). This has ended up deepening the entire country's cynicism, not by restoring integrity, but by creating a monstrous system of appearance-based regulations which encourage moralistic posing while actually undermining genuine integrity. Oddly enough, by exposing the appearance racket for what it is, this book offers hope to people (like me) who long since gave up. Integrity can still be made to matter, despite the cult of appearances enshrined since the Watergate Big Bang.
I am not out to rehabilitate Nixon, but were the fine insights of these authors juxtaposed alongside certain long-suppressed details of Watergate, additional light might be shed on why those who were out to get Nixon at all costs created a system of appearance-based "reforms" which ended up perpetuating the very thing they claimed to be ending. Those who "got" Nixon in my view ultimately had even more to hide than he did. They created a code for their times -- a code of appearances.
In the old days, an impropriety was an impropriety. Appearances were used to conceal improprieties, but with no real guarantee that anyone would be fooled. What was once a disguise has now become official certification that no impropriety exists.
When morality is defined as compliance with rules, true morality ceases.
Why didn't the government ever think of that?
I was surprised to discover as I read this book that it's message is almost the opposite of what I'd expected from its title. And as the authors suggest, once I understood the issue they are describing, I saw signs of it everywhere.
If you lack time to read anything else, be sure to read the second-to-last chapter, in which the authors suggest solutions. Fortunately, they are ones anyone can help with, rather than the usual prescriptive wishing for magic to happen and public servants to behave differently for no obvious reason for them to do so.