For a new excommunication

Social disapproval is the best way to fight corruption.

By MEIR TAMARI
May 27, 2006 22:35
3 minute read.

A recent Jerusalem conference sponsored by the Movement for Quality in Government focused on corruption - social, economic and political. Many speakers pointed to transparency and legal prosecution as the solution to this insidious problem. But while transparency and legal prosecution are certainly necessary prerequisites, they alone are insufficient for a truly successful anti-corruption campaign. I define corruption, as distinct from crime, as immoral and unethical acts that become socially accepted norms. That being the case, it is their social acceptance that has to be attacked. Modern government is often a major force in fostering corruption that ultimately spreads elsewhere in society. Unless we can educate people to insist on political norms that do not tolerate such behavior, corruption will continue to be rampant. This socialization needs to be done from an early age, so that corruption will be viewed as shameful and deserving of punishment. OUR EDUCATIONAL system is plagued by cheating, from the elementary and secondary school level up to university. And this cheating is accepted by peers, parents and the educating institutions. Young people thus receive the message that the end justifies the means, that society somehow approves of what they are doing, and will certainly not punish it. More than that: Someone who doesn't cheat is seen as a sucker. Thus the cultural seeds from which corruption grows are sown. Unless we insist on norms that refuse to tolerate such behavior among young people, it will carry over into business, political and social life. IT IS easy to notice our corrupt behavioral norms. For instance, witness the ease with which civil servants move to private firms they previously monitored - arousing suspicion that their long-term planning while in pubic service entailed some dereliction on their part. The same applies to the sudden transitions, without training or experience, by which public, political and military figures become politicians or consultants in economic enterprises here and abroad. IN THE modern nation state the national interest and greater welfare should serve to curb corruption, while democracy provides the machinery to "throw the bums out." However, tribalism - ethnic, religious, or even political philosophy - leads to a culture in which if you belong to my family or tribe (or political party), then you are "kosher," but if you belong to another tribe you are automatically "corrupt." Democracy then becomes a means for protecting and perpetuating corruption. Strengthening national identification and the values of citizenship in the State of Israel - which is not the same as jingoism - is therefore a prerequisite for all anti-corruption efforts. In countries where state-controlled economies were transformed rapidly into free-market economies, the sudden appearance of a high concentration of wealth in the hands of a few inevitably led to a corruption of the political and social machinery. Free-marketers claim the solution to this is greater competition, freer markets and anti-monopoly legislation. If they prove to be wrong, it will be necessary to demand restrictions on the market and financial regulation in order to curb corruption. YET THE essential ingredient of any anti-corruption move is simple public disgust and a demonstration of that disapproval. Social ostracism or political punishment is far more powerful than jail or legal entanglement. Public opinion in Britain forced Tony Blair to dismiss or shift ministers in the wake of a recent scandal. Conversely, if unethical behavior carries no stigma, and especially if culprits are lionized in the media, if their social and personal lives are held up as role models while the clergy, judicial and political leaders seek their company, no anti-corruption efforts will be effective. The British call social ostracism "blackballing," while our sages knew it as the power of herem, or excommunication, whereby a culprit's food became unkosher for all others, his family and social celebrations went unattended, and there were no honors for him or his family in the synagogue or community. In the 17th century a wealthy Jew decided the taxes of the Jewish community of Poznan were excessive, so he sold everything he had and sought to relocate. In every community to which he came he was treated honorably, but respectfully told he could not settle there; his failure to meet his Jewish moral obligations was not to be condoned. As a result of this social displeasure alone, the man returned to Poznan. For an effective war against corruption, our society needs its own version of the herem. The writer is founder of the Center for Business Ethics and Social Responsibility.


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