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Private Sector Ethics: The Key to Reviving Trust in Government?


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Alexandru V. Roman

Social science scholars have long suggested that trust in market dynamics and governments are indispensable dimensions of successful governance. According to multiple recent public polls, given the current economic condition and recent corporate and political shortfall, citizens’ trust in government is approaching or exceeding all time lows. In his 2011 book The Price of Civilization: Reawakening American Virtue and Prosperity, Jeffrey Sachs delineates the decay in social responsibility and the diminishing emphasis on morality of the past five decades as the common denominator behind the current political and economic struggles. According to scholars such as Sachs, it is impossible to solve current economic, political and global challenges without restoring trust in governance and public administration. I believe that accomplishing the latter, however, might be unfeasible without an emphasis on ethics in the private sector and a reevaluation of what currently is primarily a moral-free market narrative. There are several reasons that have led to this ironic interdependence between trust in government and private sector ethics.

First, as Camilla Stivers in her 2002 book Gender Images in Public Administration: Legitimacy and the Administrative State argues–the historical efforts to legitimize public administration have led to the introduction of a dichotomy between public and personal lives. The dichotomy, which according to Stivers is importantly informed by gender images, is more real than apparent. In many ways clearly discerning public space from personal space has desiccated administration and politics of morals and emotions, most of which were carefully restrained to the domain of personal life. Within a similar tone Dwight Waldo in “Development of Theory of Democratic Administration” published in 1952 in American Political Science Review asserts that modern governance has responded to increased demands and pressures by standardizing and mechanizing its approaches under an overarching umbrella of neutrality. Sachs goes even further and suggests that the inability of government to deal with the system shocks of 1970s and the beginning of the dominance of a “laissez-faire” narrative might have forcefully deemed morality in politics all but dead, but not yet officially recognized as such.

Second, globalization and the expansion of market-driven values into public life and the assault on morality within personal spaces have led to a diminishing emphasis on social responsibility. Sachs believes that the pursuit of individual freedoms and rights has motivated the abandonment of ideas such as duty and community; with materialism filling the gap formed by the latter. Whether such dynamics are “good “ or “bad” probably is not as important as the fact that the majority of today’s social meaning creation mechanisms rely on a constellation of assumptions cleverly constructed on hypothetical benefits of self-interest. Once certain interpretations become unquestionably ingrained in the social fabric, the majority of other values might easily become nonessential. The demarcation of this inherent risk is by no means new. As early as 1960, Wilhelm Röpke in his book A Humane Economy advocated the need for powerful protective boundaries to ensure that moral values resist the assaults from the marketplace.

Finally, the incompatibility between market-based assumptions and the ideas of morality and social duty provides what appears to be an insolvable dilemma. The ways in which values and virtues are defined within a market narrative are importantly at odds with governance legitimizing social responsibility. According to Sachs, economic theory, somewhat ironically, provides an appropriate explanation for the current lack of emphasis on moral values. Since in a market-driven framework, both morality and social responsibility are long term investments and individuals are impatient and heavily discount future benefits; they would prefer “other” short term investments over the benefits of ethical constructs. In other words, given the perceived inefficiency of social responsibility, it becomes something that citizens habitually prefer to “sell short”.

In the end, regardless of what has led to the current condition, one cannot deny that citizens have lost trust in government’s ability, in public administration respectively, to lead moral a transformation of governance. The invasion of governance by market-shaped values, the internal and external attacks on the competency and legitimacy of administration and the confinement of morality and social responsibility to the domain of personal life–have all weakened the “moral recovery capacity” of today’s government and society in general.

Hence, the construction of any ethical renaissance or genuine transformation will most likely have to be based within the motivational and behavioral constructs of the private sector. Governance has become “too private” and private has become too “self-interested” for administration to regain citizens’ trust relying solely on its devices. It is vital, however, that efficiency/profit-type motive structures do not provide the basis for future ethical transformative efforts. As Michael Sandel suggested in 2009 in Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?, if one chooses to be ethical because it is good for business, one probably either misunderstands what it means to be ethical or does not necessarily intend to be ethical. Ethics for the purpose of bottom line is no longer ethical. It is dangerous to embrace and overly instrumental view of ethics. Such a view will underestimate the complexity of a true ethical behavior and will risk fostering cynicism similar to one that resulted from approaches such as total quality management or organizational engineering.

Given the embeddedness of market-driven values in our personal lives and the “marketization” of governance–paradoxically, reconstructing trust in public administration, governance and social responsibility might have to start with the private sector. Corporate ethical frameworks such as the United Nations Global Compact and the Caux Principles provide an appropriate start/foundation, but it is obviously not sufficient.

ASPA member Alexandru V. Roman is a Ph.D. candidate in the School of Public Administration at Florida Atlantic University. Email: [email protected]

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