Ethics in Politics?


“Who put the question mark there, you all know he’ll read whatever is on the prompter!” Mostly a quote from the movie Anchorman. The point is, should that question mark be there or not? In the US, the STOCK Act, designed to prevent insider trading by Congressmen, is moving forward for debate in the Senate. This type of law, even if there are debates about the need for this specific law because it should already be illegal, really drives the point home. Clearly, this is something that the majority of us would consider unethical. In business ethics courses (heh), this type of action is typically considered a big no-no and at many work places is considered very bad as well.

A personal example for me came from working at Verizon Wireless. My first co-op rotation there I was an equipment engineer, where I bought equipment and work with companies to build cell sites. For a Sophomore in college this was pretty awesome. I was buying stuff that was worth something like $40,000 like it was nothing. Pretty cool stuff right? Well, I started to deal with vendors and learned that no vendor was allowed to buy any of us lunch. Not even lunch. If anything was worth more than $25 as a gift, we had to return it.

Now, if you put this into perspective of what insider trading or campaign contributions, we can see where there’s an ethical problem. I was making $16/hour at the time, so $25 bucks was almost a quarter of a work day’s salary. Pretty big deal. Insider trading has made congress members a much higher return on their salary than that 25 bucks was for me. The perks provided by Lobbyists are even worse than lunch. They’ll buy you lunch, but it won’t be at Primanti Brother’s, it will be at some place that’s $100 a plate plus wine, then take you golfing later.

So where does this disconnect come from? If this is something that I knew was wrong when I was 20, why don’t these Congress members understand that at 50 and older? One of the problems are social norms, if everyone is doing it, why aren’t you? These social norms can be extremely powerful, as teenagers we were always warned about peer pressure to do drugs and stuff, cause drugs are bad, m’kay? The problem would become when everyone around you was doing this, and it was the only way to survive the situation there are powerful urges to conform.

Once someone has conformed, these social norms become their own self reinforcing type of “ethical” behavior. This begs the question if the end justify the means? Well, we also need to be aware if the ends are justified at all. I think in many cases, the ends are so influenced in both conscious and unconscious ways, that we don’t even know what the ends the politician set out to achieve are any more.

This is why it is important to have independent watch dog organizations and an independent judicial system. It is also why it is important to get money out of politics. Once money is out, the choices aren’t captured by the interests of the people paying you. Independence allows impartial review and a manner to determine which course is actually best for the whole.

Americans prize their rights, however, rights are threatened whenever there are powerful interests that want to limit those rights. Despite the fact that I talk about the US on here a lot, these ideas are transnational, and all citizens need to work to remove the influence of money from their political system. There are ways to do it. For the US Lawrence Lessig has proposed one idea in Republic, Lost and Reddit is working on their on PAC and Free Internet Act as another solution.

When I finish with my thesis I plan to become active in both Reddit activities and I suggest you look to find something similar.

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