The importance of integrity
Government has a great deal of power in any society, probably no less so in a first world democracy than in a dictatorship. It can restrict our freedom and take our property, even take our lives, and its operations are mostly outside our daily purview. Eventually, a government will reflect and enforce the values of whomever controls it; in a democracy, that should be we the people.
After conferring on it extensive rights and power, we hope and expect the government will exercise its authority in accordance with our collective will, for our collective benefit. We ask it, as our agent, to represent and effectuate our national standards and values. In my experience, the vast majority of government employees do just that. In fact, they are required to.
Defense Department employees, for example, take periodic certification training in the practical application of Executive Order 12674, an Order that applies to all federal employees and explicates detailed ethical obligations such as these:
It has never been written into law that the federal government’s CEO, the President, is subject to the same rules as other government workers. Apparently, no one thought it necessary. Presidents are assumed to be the apex representatives of the country and its citizens. They are entrusted to control the executive branch of government for the protection and benefit of the entire country. A president who would deliberately corrupt the capability of the professional government to perform its duties, or undermine its public mission with demands to advance illegitimate interests, would do far wider damage to the country than with any single illicit act.
There are two definitions and two ways to think about government integrity. First is “the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles,” qualities to which most of us aspire, have asked of our leaders, and expected our government to represent. But a second relates to “the state of being whole and undivided.” To have integrity, government’s behavior and our expectations must honestly reflect our values.
We can only expect our government to tell us the truth, respect our rights, not waste our tax dollars, and perform their duties with competence and expertise if we as a society respect and embody truth, honesty, and expertise ourselves. Institutional integrity cannot be established by hypocrisy or without personal integrity at the top.
Winds of political corruption have been blowing strong through our democracy of late, bending norms and institutions that are largely maintained by government bureaucracy. Notably, most of reported corruption is being committed and directed by elected and politically appointed officials, not by career employees. If we the (voting) people have decided that corruption is acceptable, we must anticipate and accept that a corrupt professional government will follow. If we have given up on Democracy, we should be ready for authoritarian control of government’s vast power for a single individual’s purposes. But if you find the thought of an enormous, powerful, corrupt and authoritarian government as frightening as I do, I hope you will stay vigilant and help protect the independence, expertise, and integrity of government employees and their ability to stand strong for the public interest first and always.