KNOXVILLE, Tenn.– Efforts at ethics reform have been a dismal failure, a University of Tennessee law professor said Friday.
“The post-Watergate discussion about ethical reform has really been about image rather than substance,” said Glenn Reynolds, co-author of The Appearance of Impropriety: How Ethics Wars Have Undermined American Government, Business and Society. “We have done very little to actually clean up ethics in politics.
“People have seen through it and it has seriously damaged public confidence in the government.”
Reynolds and co-author Peter Morgan say government, business and media have increasingly emphasized appearances, shifting focus from more pertinent issues of ethics, truth and justice.
For example, Hillary Clinton was asked to justify the appearance of impropriety created by her association with Whitewater, but questioned sparingly about any actual wrongdoings, Reynolds said.
Current investigations of campaign finance ethics violations follow the same pattern, he said.
“Nobody denies that politicians are selling government power to special interests in exchange for campaign contributions,” Reynolds said. “But most of the discussion of the scandal involves whether it was done in an appropriately veiled way or in an obvious exchange.”
Reynolds said appearance ethics can trigger public distrust and social chaos.
“When people don’t trust the government the consequence can be civil war, anarchy and tyranny,” Reynolds said. “No one trusted the Soviet Union government for a long time. It looked pretty strong but collapsed rapidly.
“I’m not saying the United States faces a similar fate. But by the time we find out how bad government ethics and public distrust really are, it may be too late to fix.” —
Contact: Glenn Reynolds (423-974-6744)