303. "Go Easy on Sin, Mr. Blair," The London Times, (August 1, 1998), p. 18.
If there is a subject on which Americans top the Brits, it is corruption; we are much better at it. We also know a lot about how not to deal with it. Basically, moralizing makes things worse. True, a holier-than-thou posture helps win elections, but it is best abandoned when governing. Otherwise one merely invites the opposition and the media to demonstrate that the current Administration is also composed of mortals.
The subtext must be to fully acknowledge up-front human imperfectability. Cabinet members, MPs, and staff members are subject to so many do's and don'ts that some of them must be expected to cross the line sooner or later.
Acknowledging the humanity of those who govern does not at all mean that one should ignore human frailties. But the treatment must be honest and leave room for redemption. Any claim to purge the rascals and be pure thereafter, is disingenuous at best and will backfire.
Specifically, personal frailties, many concerning misplaced sex, are best addressed much more lightly than violations of public duties.
When censure is called for, the government should rely on a distinction between venal and cardinal sins, omission and commission, recognized by many religions and in law. Thus, even if a staffer were to promise a lobbyist an appointment with a cabinet member, this is a far cry from selling the USSR a list of M5 agents. The punishment should fit the crime.
A graduated response works best. When members of the government, many new and inexperienced, cross a line for the first time, an official note calling attention to their indiscretion often suffices. If the impropriety is repeated, a stern warning might follow. If needed, next suspension might be called for, and even dismissal. However, starting by firing people, as some have advocated for Mendelsohn and some staffers, violates the recognition of human imperfection and is politically stupid. The opposition will not celebrate the house cleaning; on the contrary, it will soon list all those who have been canned as evidence that the government itself acknowledges that it is full of sleaze.
Fessing up and apologizing is good for the soul and--the government. Stonewalling, obfuscation, and attacking legitimate critics adds insult to injury. When officials are caught red-handed but refuse to come clean, they often end up damaging the moral code more than whatever offense they first committed. Sincere apologies and making amends are to be appreciated, and reluctance to do so--considered an additional misdeed.
Above all, prevention is vastly superior to punishment. Clearer--and less tightly drawn lines--are often a constructive lesson of new allegations. One may take example from US military efforts to make adultery a less serious offense. The military discovered, given the new moralistic climate, that it may have to discharge half of its officers and still not stop adultery, if it stuck to its guns.
All this is not to suggest that one should ignore sleaze. On the contrary: the best way to keep violations of the moral code rare and limited, is to focus our moral concern on serious offenses, on repeat offenders, and on those who will not relent and repent. If one jumps with both feet on every indiscretion, serious offenses will soon be lost in the shuffle. Keeping our moral outrage strong but focused is the best way to maintain a government of mortals that can be as pure as is humanly possible.
Amitai Etzioni is the author of The New Golden Rule: Community and Morality in a Democratic Society (London: Profile Books Ltd. 1997) and founder of The Communitarian Network (email@example.com).