Corruption's Corrosion

GOVERNMENT corruption, sad to say, has a long tradition. So pervasive had it become in Boss Tweed's New York City of the late 19th century that a Tammany Hall politico praised ``honest graft'' - probably meaning that he, unlike some conscienceless chaps, delivered quo for the quid.

Government in the United States is not as openly corrupt today as in times past. ``Wickedness in high places'' still abounds, though, from the county commissioner who takes kickbacks for road contracts to the Iran-contra gang.

Official dishonesty is widespread in some countries. In Italy and Japan, investigators and prosecutors are peeling away seemingly endless layers of bribery, skimming, and self-dealing in the conduct of public and corporate business. In these countries and others in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, a government post too often is seen as a license to steal.

Modern societies have their own forms of ``honest graft.'' Look at US campaign-finance laws: Despite sporadic reforms since Watergate, politicians still legally pocket large sums from special interests to mount their increasingly costly campaigns. The effects of such payments usually aren't so crass as to constitute vote-buying; but the money buys from a politician a receptive ear, the benefit of the doubt, and diminished zeal for positions the donors oppose.

We see abuses of power in the private sector as well. Corporate executives pay themselves million-dollar salaries, in many cases unrelated to their companies' performance. The title of a recent movie, ``Other People's Money,'' sums up the cavalier ethics of too many people in the business and professional worlds. Even the head of the United Way, a charitable organization, was sacked not long ago for his lavish perks.

More troubling than discrete acts of venality by public officials or private-sector leaders, however, is the extent to which a culture of self-enrichment pervades many governmental, political, and financial systems around the world. In too many places, law ignores a degree of corruption - whether because under-the-table payments are seen as necessary to get things done or because graft becomes a part of so many people's income.

Corruption - even in penny-ante forms - is not victimless. At the least, it raises the costs of government and business services, diverting funds from better uses. Worse, corruption in such areas as government procurement skews the allocation of resources and often rewards inefficiency. Bribery and self-dealing also corrode public confidence in government and the democratic process. The low voter turnout in Russia on Dec. 12 and the protest vote against political and economic reform certainly are attributable in part to people's disgust with officials on the take.

Beyond the economic and political case against corruption is the fundamental moral objection that dishonesty in all forms debases the human enterprise, coarsens conduct and attitudes, and erodes the ability to distinguish right from wrong.

What can we do to combat corruption? In many places, the need is for tougher legislation against graft, influence peddling, and other misuses of public power for private gain. And in all countries, there's room for tougher enforcement of ethics laws. Prosecutors and judges in Italy and Japan, as well as in other countries, deserve support in their often dangerous campaigns against corruption. FBI Director Louis Freeh took a good step in this direction with his Dec. 12 denunciation of the Mafia in Sicily and his pledge of US support for Italy's fight against corruption in politics and business.

Additional laws and enforcement powers can also be useful in the fight against ``honest graft.'' Reform of US campaign-finance laws would be a good place to start. President Clinton needs to stick with his announced aim to make campaign reform a high priority of his administration, in the face of predictable resistance in Congress.

Laws and regulations opening government decisionmaking to public scrutiny - so-called sunshine laws - can lessen the influence of special interests. As Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once remarked, ``Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.''

In the end, though, morality can't be legislated. To curb corruption, societies will have to replace a culture of greed with a culture of service. Officeholders and leaders in the public and private sectors need to regard positions of power as positions of trust, and themselves as ``trustees.''

A trustee - someone who holds property or exercises authority not in his own right but solely in the interests of others - is bound by standards of disinterestedness, dutifulness, and accountability. These qualities should be the hallmarks of every government official and every leader of private institutions that serve the public.

The trustworthiness that is corruption's antidote will characterize our leaders only to the extent it is embraced by societies and institutions, and is inculcated in our children.

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