Chrysler and the US conscience

Once again, it appears, corporate America has been caught with its ethics down. These past weeks, the spotlight has fallen on the Chrysler Corporation. First, the corporation and two of its employees were indicted for disconnecting odometers on cars driven by company executives and later sold as new. Then, last week, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration socked the company for 811 violations at an assembly plant in Newark, Del. - imposing fines of $1.6 million, the largest penalty of its kind ever imposed. Why should the carmaker find itself in this fix? What's behind the issue?

One can explain (although not excuse) the company's behavior by seeing it in the larger light of overseas competition - something carmakers know a lot about. Much has been written, after all, about the need to revitalize the nation's competitive spirit. The solution usually hinges on increasing American productivity. And that, in turn, means keeping costs down and inspiring hard work. One way to do that is through perks - by giving executives new cars to drive. Another way is to defer the upgrading of older plants - even though workers are exposed to unacceptable levels of lead and arsenic, as happened at the Delaware plant.

But the threat of competition is only part of the problem. Looming larger, I think, is a subtle shift in the nation's sense of respect for and adherence to its laws. It is as though the United States had moved mentally from an attitude that says, ``Don't break the law,'' to one that says, ``Don't get caught breaking the law.''

Now it goes without saying that these are very different ideas. The first suggests a regard for both the letter and the spirit of the law - as though to acknowledge that respect for the concept of law is fully as important as the keeping of individual laws. The second tends to regard law as a matter of letter only - and thinks of the spirit of the law as something irrelevant, perhaps even inimical to individual success.

If that's the nation's sense of law, is it any wonder that the US is viewed as the most litigious society on earth? Where success is seen as a battle between the freedom to acquire and the laws that restrain, is it any wonder that there's abundant work for those seeking loopholes in the law? Is it any wonder that the US now has one lawyer for every 350 people - compared, say, with Japan, with one for every 9,000 people? Yet is it any wonder that a Business Week/Harris Poll published last August found that only politicians ranked lower than lawyers on the public's list of those professions with the poorest ethical standards?

There are, of course, hundreds of highly ethical lawyers working hard to reverse that image. But the Harris ranking suggests an interesting fact. Those who are most immersed in law - those either legislating it or practicing it - are viewed as the least ethical. That very immersion, in other words, seems to produce a counter-ethical pressure. All of which suggests that the road toward mere legalism (down which the nation is heading) is at right angles to the pathway toward a stronger sense of ethics - which one might define as respect for the spirit, as well as the letter, of the law.

This might all seem highly abstract were it not that there are unmistakable signs of growing public concern over crumbling ethics and morality. That issue is increasingly recognized as one of the future's vital concerns. Yet it lacks the kind of grass-roots support that characterizes many of the other first-intensity issues facing the world. Nuclear disarmament, environmental issues, education reform, population growth and the hunger that results from it - each has spawned numerous organizations, forums, and publications.

Still to be forged, however, is a grass-roots consensus on the need to restore US ethics. Perhaps that's because morality means different things to different people. But what if there were to grow up a group of people committed to engendering a respect for the spirit of law? What if such a group, gradually making its influence felt, could begin telling the world, ``Don't lie, don't cheat, don't hide behind mere legalisms'' - just as, years ago, the environmental movement began saying, ``Don't litter''?

Would that have saved Chrysler from its recent embarrassments? Perhaps not. But look at it this way: Would a highly visible manufacturer willfully discharge mountains of toxic sludge into a river these days? Hardly. The public sentiment against pollution - never mind the antipollution laws - is simply too strong. Suppose the nation's grass-roots desire to obey the spirit of the law were equally strong. Would any corporation risk its ethical image by tinkering with odometers or endangering the lives of employees?

If there's a hole in the defenses, this is it. Americans are charging into the next century prepared to do battle with many of the major issues. But unless they gird themselves against the onslaught of legalism and develop a consensus on ethics and the spirit of the law, the next century may not be worth inhabiting - no matter how well other problems are handled.

A Monday column

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