Saturday, June 13, 2009


There’s a lot of talk these days about reforming our systems. It seems there’s hardly a system we have that doesn’t need major repair—our financial system, our health care system, our educational system, our prison system, our energy system, our very free-market capitalist system itself. Not to mention our eco-system!

All have suffered blowback from various forms of gross dishonesty and abuse and have ceased to function as they’re intended or to meaningfully serve those they exist to serve. The case of the financial system, apparently brought to its knees, is a prime example.

This is cause for great concern, not only because we Americans are addicted to our systems, believing them to be the best in the world, but also and more importantly because much of the rest of the world has bought into our paradigm and depends upon our systems, too.

In the inevitable soul-searching that has developed as our systems fall apart around us, most commentators emphasize rescuing existing systems with an influx of cash, then adopting new standards to stop past abuses and prevent them from recurring in the future. Some urge changing systems altogether—from capitalism to socialism, for instance, or from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources.

But, while admittedly some systems may be more appropriate than others for any given time, I question whether changing systems or closing loopholes in existing systems will really solve the problem of dishonest practices. I’m more inclined to believe that any system will work pretty well so long as the people in it are honest. And no system will work very well if the people in it are dishonest.

According to Webster’s Dictionary, the word “honesty” derives from the Latin root honestus, meaning “free from fraud or deception.” Dishonesty, on the other hand, is not “free from fraud or deception” but specifically applies to fraudulent and deceptive practices.

So let’s suppose we live in an absolute monarchy where the king is a sincere and honest man surrounded by honest courtiers and administrators. What might we expect from that system?

From what we know of monarchies, the king is the equivalent of a father to his people. Given that paradigm, an honest king will attempt to fulfill that role.

Generally, a father’s role is to protect and provide for his children, making sure they have adequate food, clothing, and shelter and access to education in honest values and useful skills so they can lead fulfilling lives of constructive service to society. So an honest king would enact policies generally directed toward those ends.

I imagine such a system would work quite well. In fact, there appear to be some historical records of such monarchies, some of them seeming more like legends from a Golden Age in the distant past.

But it seems more common in the histories to find accounts of dishonest kings, who make promises they have no intention of keeping, eliminating any who oppose them, and using the country’s wealth for their own pleasure or ambition. These kings, we’d say, are bad fathers, whose children suffer under their thumbs and grow up warped and wild.

In those cases, however, it’s not the system of monarchy that doesn’t work. It’s the character of the monarch which fails, thus corrupting the system.

We, on the other hand, live in a system of representative constitutional democracy, based in the concept of self-rule. Our rulers are not meant to be our fathers but our peers, our equals. They are selected from among us to represent our interests in the capitals where public policy is made.

If the peers we elect are honest—free of “fraud or deception”—we may expect them to represent the interests of those who elected them while at the same time, as constitutionally mandated, protecting the rights of those who did not.

Mistakes may be made, of course, but at least they’re likely to be honest mistakes. Honest mistakes can be owned and corrected. But dishonest mistakes are a whole other matter. Characteristically, people who make dishonest mistakes, which usually means getting caught doing something they are bound by law and oath not to do, do not come forward and confess. They try to cover up their misdeeds, it being the nature of dishonesty to follow one deception or fraud with another out of fear of exposing the first and facing consequences.

Our system of representative democracy has long been tainted by a pattern of dishonesty practiced by the individuals in it, until the dishonesty itself has become systemic. The reason for that is quite simple. Instructed by our elders and over-bearing peers, we have been led to believe that any means to gain our ends is an acceptable strategy for the conduct of life, which is seen as a never-ending battle of winners and losers.

That philosophy has led us to where we are today, with more skeletons in our closets than we can shut the door on. In such outcomes we can see the fallacy of the premise.

It’s not capitalism or democracy or any other system that has produced these outcomes. It’s dishonest individuals, and not just the high-profile power brokers who meet in secret to make deals to advantage themselves while the rest of us pay the price. All are implicated who cheat, lie, steal, or deceive to get what we want at the expense of someone else. When enough dishonest individuals are at work at the same time, competing with each other for more and better rewards while regulators and enforcers look the other way, the entire system, having become a carnival for run-away egos, has been corrupted.

All systems down through the ages, including the democracies, theocracies, and dictatorships of today, have followed the same pattern, falling over time into systemic corruption so severe that they no longer work for the welfare of their constituents. Then, by necessity and by definition, they must fail.

People just can’t seem to practice a code of honesty that is passed on from generation to generation. There is apparently something in the human condition which makes dishonesty a temptation too great for many, perhaps most of us to resist.

Until we address that fundamental situation in our natures, we can change systems for millennia and not achieve anything but the rise and fall of systems.

And, in fact, it may never happen—the appearance in history of a culture in which most or all of the individuals in it are honest. But that’s a topic for another day.

For today, it’s enough to conclude that until we the people learn to practice a fundamental honesty as individuals, an honest system cannot exist, no matter how much reform legislation is passed or what philosophy of governance is applied.


At 6:00 PM , Blogger tench said...

enjoyed your essay.
I'm researching a short history of corporate law. Below is a link for an amendment to Constitution.

At 2:47 AM , Blogger kate loving shenk said...

Hi D--It turns out, and it's a well kept secret until recently, that Single Payer will save vast amounts of money--say across the Commonwealth of PA, because this is where we have tested it. California has proven vast savings, as well.

Here in PA, we will save $353,000,000--a year--by going to a Single Payer model of health delivery. These numbers would be similar everywhere else.

I concur that Single Payer is the only compassionate thing to do.

But because so much money is saved, it's only a matter of time.

Not If--but When.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home