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Honesty: What's In It For Me?
First, do lots of harm.
A long time ago, in a political and social context far away, I was going through a brutal selection process to identify a group of young people who would be eligible to compete for Top Jobs in the pubic sector in the UK, in the days when there were Top Jobs, when they were worth having, and when the people who held them were worthy of respect and emulation.
At one point, I was interviewed by the kind of wise old retired public servant who doesn’t exist any more, and who asked me a series of standard questions, one of which was, What makes a good public servant? I gave an equally standard reply, as I recall, listing obvious qualities of competence, neutrality, discretion, and a series of other things that are no longer valued.
“Haven’t you forgotten one thing?” he asked, with a quizzical air. I must have looked a bit lost, because he immediately added. “I mean integrity.”
“I rather took that for granted” I said: a reply which, whilst perfectly reasonable at the time, would probably be greeted with derision and incomprehension today. That reply didn’t stop me succeeding in the competition (not that that did me any good in the end) but the little vignette has stayed with me all my life, as I watched, first from inside and then from outside, the destruction of the public service in most western countries, and in particular the end of the presumption that integrity is its most basic characteristic. (That is why the word “service” was used there in its traditional sense, not in its modern sense of taking money off people to remove an obstruction you have put in their way.)
Of course, the public service of any country is embedded in a wider context, and is dependent on larger political movements. We all know what those were, after the abolition of society by one M. Thatcher, and there’s no point here in lamenting, yet again, the disastrous falling off in the standards of public life in most western states, and the transformation of public service into just another route to making money. I want to address a rather different and more interesting point: what is it that promotes honesty and integrity in the first place, and what is it that destroys it? The second of those is easier to answer, perhaps, but the first is more interesting, not least because I believe that our society no longer understands the meaning and importance of the question, still less the answer. So here’s an attempt to explain corruption and dishonesty, and why they have become a great problem in western societies.
To begin, let’s invoke the shade of Max Weber again. Weber famously wrote about “bureaucracy”—he effectively codified the modern understanding of it as a rational, predictable and hierarchical system of decision-making. For our purpose, though, I want to concentrate on one particular aspect, precisely that of honesty. Weber said, very clearly, that the public service is a “vocation.” (He used the German word Beruf). He distinguished the public service very clearly from “a source to be exploited from rents or emoluments as was normally the case during the Middle Ages” (and later, one might add.) The official’s loyalty was not to an individual, but to a function and to impersonal cultural values, and this loyalty is rewarded with security of tenure, unlike earlier eras where favourites could be appointed and dismissed at the whim of the Ruler. There is, at least ideally, total separation between the private interests of the individual, and the demands of the job, just as there is between the salary of the official, and the public money that might pass through their hands.
As Weber illustrates, it wasn’t always like that. Traditionally, ambitious (if not necessarily talented) individuals would compete for lucrative jobs under the patronage of the Ruler or some subordinate figure. So, after a lot of intriguing and boot-licking, you might land the post of Assistant Controller of Commerce in a city on a river, responsible for collecting customs duties. Since your job might disappear next week, you would bend every effort to make as much money from your position as possible, through bribes and extortion. So essentially, before the nineteenth century, government was almost completely privatised: even armies were often what we would now call Private Military Companies, with regiments moving from the service of one Ruler to another. So why did this change? There are a number of purely mechanistic reasons first. One reason was that, modernisation of the state effectively required its professionalisation. Modernisation could be held back for a while, as in pre-revolutionary France, but ultimately modern states would triumph over pre-modern ones. A second reason was the rise to political power of a Liberal middle class, who demanded clear and unambiguous laws and procedures to regulate commerce, and an honest bureaucracy to enforce them. (There is a massive irony hidden in that development, to which we will return).
But the real reason, I think, is hidden in the word “vocation.” That word, from the Latin vocare “to call” is cognate with “vocal” “vocabulary” and other similar words. In modern English we would say “calling,” which is a literal translation. Now priests of all religions have generally felt “called” to the priesthood, but in certain traditions the concept also has a secular dimension. In the Protestant tradition especially, with its emphasis on a direct and unmediated relationship between God and the individual, a “vocation” was effectively an instruction from God about the role that you were to play in a society, and one which you would do well to heed. Weber mistakenly identified this Protestant calling with the rise of Capitalism: these days we would say that it was rather that the new merchant class found certain types of Protestantism conducive, and adopted them, but Weber was right to point to a relationship between the two things.
A vocation is something you don’t do for money, and don’t walk away from. It promotes a seriousness about life and a dedication to goals over and above your own prosperity and success. Even as belief in formal religion started to fray, these habits of mind endured and became part of the intellectual furniture of many societies, especially in the North of Europe. But there were also parallel examples. In France, for example, the Republic with (ironically) its fiercely secular ethos was the equivalent of a religious vocation, and many bright young people followed the calling of being a school teacher, often an isolated and unpopular figure in a country village, eternally at daggers drawn with the local curé, who preached that education was against the will of God. At the other end of the world, in Japan with its Confucian tradition and the return of the capital to the Imperial city of Edo (Tokyo), a similar ethos seems to have developed. But whether it was the after-effects of religion, the Confucian superiority of scholars over merchants, the sense of service to a King or Emperor, the disdain for “trade,” or any of half a dozen other things, a mentality of service to a greater good, and ultimately to the public, had taken hold in many countries by the time Weber wrote his study of bureaucracy. It was this ethos—often vaguely monastic and slightly puritan—that underwrote the economic and political development of the West. In a rather different fashion, the Soviet Union only functioned as well as it did because of a very powerful culture of (often unpaid) service to the Party, which started to disintegrate towards the end, in favour of corruption and careerism. And even the Taliban, and to a lesser extent the Islamic State, were respected for their relative honesty in a sea of corruption.
There’s something missing from this, of course: ego. More precisely, people did not go into the public service to become wealthy, powerful or famous. The tradition in many countries was to be rather self-effacing, to avoid expressions of strong opinions, and to prioritise getting the job done over any personal rewards. Overt careerism tended to be frowned upon. By definition, all but the most senior public servants were anonymous: the Minister might remember to thank the drafter of a particularly well received speech, for example, but then again the Minister might not. Although there were many variants, the pursuit of wealth, fame and status on one hand, and responsibility for keeping the country going on the other, were fairly clearly demarcated from each other, sometimes by laws. Very occasionally, people would be brought in from outside, the Continental cabinet system of personal advisers blurred these distinctions at the top, and on retirement senior officials might possibly go into private sector jobs, but these were nuances.
The main characteristic of such organisations, even above competence and generally good management, was integrity, without which governments can’t really function. But integrity was a culture, and not, critically, a set of rules. I remember being surprised, as a young public servant, by the minimal attention given to formal checks and anti-corruption measures. But then in almost all cases, they would have been addressing a problem that scarcely existed, partly for cultural reason, and partly for practical ones, to which I will return. The succeeding decades saw both a massive increase in formal controls and an increasing tendency towards corruption, and no-one will be surprised to hear that the first largely preceded the second.
The creation and maintenance of an honest public sector is therefore a mysterious thing, It depends to a large extent on concepts that seem to us out of date, or even reactionary: they may include, variously, group solidarity, respect for tradition, respect for hierarchy and experience, service to a political ideology, distaste for personal ambition, identification with a greater cause. Above all, and as will be obvious, they have no connection with, and are actually antithetical to, the Liberal ideology which has dominated thinking for the last generation.
Let’s stay with that thought for a moment. Liberalism is entirely about the individual: even a Liberal society is about a society of individuals, and how to balance their competing interests. Liberalism is the rational pursuit of individual autonomy and financial freedom, without regard to the consequences for others, and with only those limitations specifically prescribed by laws. Moreover, Liberalism regards the state as a nuisance, and ideally would like its functions reduced to the absolute minimum of protection of property and enforcement of contract law. Such an ideology has no room for honesty as a concept, only for behaviour according to the letter of a set of rules. It asks not What Should I Do? but rather What Can I Get Away With? As we shall see, it cannot promote and maintain any morally honest behaviour, except by fear.
And yet, it might be objected, Liberalism was a powerful political force during the creation of the modern state in Europe. How could Liberalism, with its ethos of radical selfishness, reconcile itself to the idea of a state apparatus run on the principle of integrity and identification with the collective good? I think the answer is that it was a question of survival. In Britain, and in spite of the power of Liberal ideas, the political elite was reeling from the shock of German industrial competition and the shambles of the Crimean War. It was obvious that what was essentially a medieval state, deeply corrupt and hopelessly inefficient, had to be replaced by a modern state if the country was to survive and be prosperous. Liberal nostrums about limited government were all very well, but not when they jeopardised the prosperity and success of those Liberal classes themselves. The result was the reforms following the 1854 Northcote-Trevelyan Report, which created the first modern Civil Service in the western world, and whose ethical and cultural norms not only endured in Britain until the 1980s, but influenced many other countries as well.
Thus began the essential paradox of the survival of an honest and effective public sector in a Liberal state which ostensibly worshipped only the individual’s financial and personal betterment. For generations, Liberal politicians and pundits railed against “bureaucracy,” whilst all the time expecting their tax affairs, for example, to be dealt with honestly and competently, their contracts to be enforced by judges who settled issues dispassionately, and their homes protected by a police service that did not take bribes. This organised hypocrisy, which nonetheless allowed an honest and competent public service to function, did not start to break down until the 1980s. In addition, the experience of two wars had brought home with sickening force the need for and advantages of a modern and effective state, and both the public service tradition of the upper classes, and the fear of organised labour and the political Left, reinforced the idea that a modern state was not a bad idea after all, even if it carried out more functions than John Locke would necessarily have approved of. (That said, fifty years ago I’m not sure that anyone would have credited that politicians could one day contrive such a forced march back to the Middle Ages.)
Liberalism is therefore stuck with this fundamental paradox: a political philosophy of radical individualism and selfishness can only flourish in a society which is run on a day-to-day basis by people who do not accept Liberal principles, and whom Liberals themselves affect to despise. Liberals don’t actually want to live in a society where the tax inspector or the policeman expects you to pay them for doing their job, but Liberalism itself contains no rational argument about why such people should be honest. Indeed, one could go further, and say that dishonesty and corruption should be calmly recognised to be major and inevitable features of a Liberal society, because they represent what happens when individuals decide to rationally pursue their own private good. If I’m a tax inspector in a Liberal society, then it is entirely reasonable and logical for me to exploit that situation for all the private benefit that I can. There’s no point in talking to me about the public good and the need to collect taxes fairly. Liberalism doesn’t recognise the public good, except as the contested summary of private goods, so I reply, Why Should I be Honest? What’s in It for Me? And the answer, for course, is Nothing. All the Liberalism can do is flourish a book of rules, written largely to secure the position of the propertied classes, and threaten me with sanctions if I break them.
In such a situation, honesty and integrity become technical compliance issues, rather than cultural and moral imperatives. There’s a good rule in life that if you have to look in some book of regulations to discover whether you are allowed to do something, then you probably shouldn’t do it. Now clearly there are occasions where rules matter, and where the detail is important. But on major issues, societies and organisations only function at all because people respect underlying cultural and moral norms. “We don’t do that here,” is a much more powerful prohibition than “that is forbidden by Paragraph 24, section vii of this book.” So if for example I have a position of trust (!) in the public sector, the rules may forbid me from owning shares in any company with which my organisation deals. Fair enough, I obey that rule. But the rules say nothing about whether my spouse can own such shares, so of course that’s all right and I’m behaving honestly, because I am following the rules.
Ultimately, the Liberal obsession with rules and written documents governing behaviour is a consequence of this fundamental paradox. Liberalism assumes people are selfish, but treats social, political or religious constraints on behaviour as old-fashioned relics to be jettisoned. All it has to ensure good behaviour, which of course protects those who benefit most from a Liberal system, is threats of punishment, and so a lot of effort has to go into trying to decide exactly what is and is not permitted, and then ruling on technical questions in different cases. These efforts inevitably fail, and indeed are more likely to produce bad behaviour than simple moral injunctions are. The reason for this are interesting, and have to do with the inability of complex systems to describe themselves fully. Here, it’s useful to bear in mind Kurt Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem, which demonstrates that, for any consistent set of mathematical axioms, there are propositions that cannot be proved or disproved within the system. By extension, in the case of a book of rules, that means that no rules, however long and detailed, can cover all possible eventualities. In reality, the longer and more complex the rules, the greater will be the number of potential conflicts between them. This means that the traditional Liberal approach to wrongdoing—increase the number and complexity of rules—actually makes the situation worse. As the number of rules and the number of interactions increases, so the number of possible excuses and ambiguities increases also. Very well, Paragraph 24 section vii may say that, but it has to be read together, surely, with Paragraph 158, section xiv, which, if taken in the context in which it was obviously intended, does not, I would argue, definitively rule out my accepting that foreign holiday from a bank I regulate, or at least allows a margin where discretion is surely possible.
It’s this change from, What Should I Do? to What do the Rules as Written Allow Me to Get Away With? which is the basic cause of the collapse of integrity and honesty in western political systems. The familiar paradox that what is legal is not necessarily moral, and what is moral is not necessarily legal, has been quite forgotten, and the two have now been completely conflated, to the benefit of the narrowly legal. Few recent episodes have displayed this better than the sick tragicomedy of Boris Johnson’s behaviour during the Covid lockdown, and even more his subsequent attempts to justify himself, by insisting not that he was morally right (since he seems to have no conception of morality at all), but that on some interpretations, he hadn’t actually violated the specific provisions of some instruction. At that point, you can say that public integrity was essentially dead.
That being the case, one would expect that Liberal institutions would approach corruption and integrity with a little circumspection: after all, are they really going to criticise rational economic behaviour? Yes, they are, and at great length and with great ferocity. The World Bank, the IMF, the UN, the EU, the OECD and many others make “anti-corruption” measures a major feature of their policies towards the Global South, and vie with each other to emphasise the economic damage and destruction that corruption is supposed to cause. (Happily, a recent study demonstrates that most of the figures bandied around are poorly based, if not just made up.) By insisting on the centrality of corruption, of course, Liberal institutions acquire power and influence over the most sensitive areas of the governments of poorer countries. Consequently, a great deal of money goes into “anti-corruption” measures, training, laws, strategies, codes of conduct, workshops and normative frameworks. What’s interesting, though, is that “anti-corruption”, or even “integrity” are perceived in true Liberal terms as the obedience to written rules. The original assumption is that human beings are rational, utility-maximising individuals, who will therefore be dishonest when it suits them. So you create “integrity,” defined as the practice of faithfully following detailed rules of behaviour, by threatening people with investigation and prosecution if they deviate from these rules. It is therefore assumed people will make a rational decision to be honest, because the perils of being dishonest are disproportionately great.
This doesn’t work of course, as anyone with five minutes’ actual experience of life would know, and when it doesn’t work, the remedy is always the same: more laws, more controls, harsher penalties. (It should be added in fairness that China’s policy of executing corrupt businessmen may be worthy of study, and even perhaps emulation elsewhere.) And sometimes failure creates situations that are almost too surreal to grasp. Much corruption in Global South countries exists because people who work for the state are not paid properly, or even at all, and are expected to supplement their income from other sources. I’ve had conversations with more than one African policeman freshly returned from an “anti-corruption” course in Ottawa or Stockholm, expenses paid and a generous per diem (which is one reason why attendance on such courses is so popular), given moral lectures on being good, and taught how to investigate and arrest his equally unpaid colleagues.
So we give up, do we? We accept that Liberalism has destroyed the many and various forms of social control which at one point used to limit corruption and promote honesty and integrity? Well, we can’t now go back and undo the damage that Liberalism has done, but there are some things we can do to alleviate, and perhaps even reverse, the problem, provided we begin from the realities of how organisations work, and how people behave. Let me suggest three possibilities.
The first is simply to take away opportunities for dishonesty: Situational Corruption Prevention, as I call it. Weber, you will recall, emphasised that the bureaucrat had no financial interest in his job. For a while now, that hasn’t been true, and the culture of bonus payments, performance pay and special allowances has crept into the public sectors of many countries, creating perverse incentives, and tempting basically honest people into dishonesty, often by small steps that are hardly noticeable. If, for example, you are a tax inspector paid, a bonus for the number of tax returns you process, you will do all the easy ones first, and you will probably let dishonest tax returns through anyway, because time spent querying them reduces your income. Or maybe you work in the Trade Ministry and have frequent meetings with your colleagues in other countries. In the past, you have been prepared to give up some time at weekends to travel so that you have the maximum time in the office during the working week. But then your government, in its magnanimity, decides that, in place of a pay rise, weekend travel will attract a special allowance. No matter how honest you are, you will start to think, well, surely it’s better to arrange meetings on Mondays because it’s less time away from the office. And before you know it, you are arranging as many of your meetings as you can on Mondays. After all, you’re not breaking any rules, are you? Or you work in a purchasing department, and the rules against accepting hospitality are relaxed. But nobody is really sure what the limits are. So yes, you can accept lunch. But dinner? Dinner and a reception with your spouse? Dinner and a reception and a night in a hotel? And a taxi home? Nobody seems to know, and nobody is really sure exactly what the rules mean in practice, because they are always drafted by people who don’t have to live with them. It’s only when one of your contacts, over a late-night whisky asks if you can do him a small favour, that you realise suddenly I shouldn’t be doing this. But it’s too late: you have forgotten that anything that allows you to increase your income by manipulating the way you do your job, leads to opportunities for corruption.
The second is to keep it simple. An obvious example is travel expenses, one of the banes of life in any large organisation. A generation ago, all the governments and international organisations I was then aware of had a simple system: here’s an assessed chunk of money which should cover your costs. Take it away and spend it, and don’t come back unless you want to be reimbursed for some special cost you have to justify. In some countries the money was paid in advance, in others it was paid afterwards. The system had obvious advantages. First, it was simple and quick to operate: often not much more than signing a form: no receipts, no questions about exactly what was included. Second, and critically, it was virtually impossible to be dishonest with such a system. And thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, it was based on trust, and on treating people as responsible individuals, not as potential criminals whose activities had to be scrutinised.
In some countries and organisations, this process seems to have been continued, at least partly. But in others, it has fallen victim to the excessive micro-management of Liberalism and its obsessive belief that the more elaborate and complex a system is the better. I recall a conversation a few years ago with someone still in the system, which went along the lines of the following. “First we had the old system, then they changed to reimbursement of actual hotel expenses. But naturally people started staying in more expensive hotels then, so they introduced guide rates that didn’t seem to be based on anything, and you had to justify staying somewhere more expensive. And then they started arguing about whether you could claim dry-cleaning costs and things like late check-out if you had an overnight flight. Then you had to justify a room upgrade, even if it was offered free. Then they started demanding receipts for individual meals, which was a problem if you were having a pre-meeting dinner with colleagues from other countries, all of whom had different expenses rules. Then they tried to impose limits on how much you could spend on each meal, and you weren’t allowed to claim reimbursement of tips. I mean, have you ever been to a restaurant in Washington? Oh, and you could order alcohol with your meal but you couldn’t claim reimbursement for it, which is fine until you you have a waiter in Montenegro who doesn’t speak English, and gives you a hand-written bill for the total. What are you supposed to do, try to work out how much your glass of wine cost and subtract it?”
And so on. What this level of stupidity and mis-micro-management actually does, paradoxically, is to increase the risk of corruption. Partly because this because it causes resentment and bitterness, especially for busy people who are just trying to get the job done. Surprisingly often, corruption results from the desire for revenge against a system that doesn’t understand or value you. So why should you value them? You turn out your pockets and find the blank taxi receipt typically given by illiterate taxi-drivers in Washington. How much was it? Was it yesterday or the day before? You’ve forgotten. It wasn’t for much, anyway, so ordinarily you might let it go. But the sadistic bureaucrats back home are always trying to cheat you. So you finally fill in a sizeable figure. After all, no-one can ever know. Partly also this is because in organisations people grow to resemble the image of themselves that the organisation projects to them. Anti-corruption campaigns are a subliminal message that your are dishonest, just as anal-retentive financial controls are a subliminal message that you can’t be trusted. Tell someone often enough that they can’t be trusted and, lo, they will be less trustworthy.
The third is to return to, and then rigorously observe, the absolute distinction between public and private that Weber correctly thought was so important. A high-flying business-human simply cannot be expected to have the same ethical principles as someone who is attracted by public service, and organisations in general obey a version of Gresham’s law: bad practices almost always drive out good ones, and the more senior the level at which bad practices are found, the worse will be the result. It could be argued that the US system, where everything is politicised and everything and everyone is for sale, at least has the merit of clarity. No-one expects their government to be honest. But in countries such as Britain, the fiction of integrity has been retained, whilst the reality has been undermined. Nowhere is this more true than with the kind of young political entrepreneur with a political science degree, a few internships and a research job who suddenly lands a post in a Minister’s staff. That person could be out of a job in a few months or a year with the next reshuffle, and the only commodity they then have to sell is their experiences and the names in their address book. Acting with integrity isn’t going to help them land a plush job at an outsourcing consultancy later.
The basic rule in organisational change is that it’s much easier to break down and destroy than it is to create something better, or even as good. It took perhaps a generation for the British system—then renowned for its corruption and incompetence—to be properly rebuilt and the changes bedded in, and another generation or two for it to become admired around the world. But that was in a different society, and the speed at which it was all ripped apart later was frightening. The only faintly positive note I can think of to end on is that, with the way the world is going, even the densest businessman or neoliberal pundit is going to realise that the countries of the world need honest, competent states, and that you don’t achieve that by shouting at people about honesty, whilst setting up systems that encourage the reverse. Perhaps the sense of emergency generated by Ukraine, Covid, climate change and others will produce the same kind of shock as in Britain nearly two centuries ago. If so, we might have to wait as little as fifty years before an honest state takes shape again.