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LEADERS’ RESPONSIBILITY AND CORRUPTION
December 7, 2000

At the dawn of the 21st century, it is widely recognized that corruption is a serious threat to democracies all over the world. Recently, several articles in newspapers and journals have raised important issues and pondered on corruption, the function of government, and responsibility – personal and collective. In Puerto Rico, the Office of the Comptroller has a decisive role on these issues. Let us reflect deeper on LEADERS, RESPONSIBILITY, AND CORRUPTION.

Government is a manifestation of the impulse of the human community to organize for social, economic and political purposes. Any corruption in the government is essentially an attack upon ourselves and our aspirations of what we are to become as a people. Corruption is a direct attack on the institution of democratic government. Lost in greed and the hunger for power, a vicious circle sets in. People do not trust the government and the government distances itself from the people. Institutional decay and public apathy follows. Self government deteriorates as people feel that neither their voice nor their vote nor their effort matters. Government then loses its legitimacy and Lincoln’s prayer for an imperishable "government of the people, by the people and for the people" is lost in the deafening roar of the cash registers of interest groups who view institutional transparency and ethical conduct as an impediment to doing business, notwithstanding the common good.

Society looks upon government to repair many of the ills that affect us. Yet our challenges at their core are not those on which politicians, public servants and business people are trained for. Our greater challenges are spiritual at their source: a misunderstanding of power, the viciousness of greed, the heavy burden of materialism, the erosion of civility. Government itself must be moved to a higher level of thought, to a profound sense of the common good, to a quickened awareness of the value it adds to society as a whole. The greatest minds of democracy understood that the material foundations of an enduring democracy rests on immaterial principles.

On what principles do we build our society? On what grounds do we base our personal and collective decisions? What are our beliefs on human nature? Are human beings single-minded, cold calculators, each out to maximize their own well-being? Is society mainly a marketplace in which self-serving individuals compete with one another –at work, in politics-, enhancing the general welfare in the process? Are humans able to figure out rationally and morally the most efficient way to realize their individual goals, and at the same time remain anchored within a community sustained by shared values and common purposes? Under what conditions can business be market efficient, government be socially responsible and community be viable? How are we to combine an efficient and innovative economy, with a responsible government geared to the common good?

These are fundamental questions that we must confront and answer clearly. At issue for politicians, business leaders and society are deep questions of values, choices, and behavior.

We do not believe that human beings are individuals, free-floating atoms within society and the economy, relating mainly on the basis of self-interest. A more advanced view is a responsive civil society where all can share a common and inalienable set of values and needs, that must be protected as the common good. Let us not underestimate the value of cooperation, trust and decency in public affairs. Let us perceive ourselves, basically, as caring human beings.

We challenge the utilitarian and individualistic paradigm applied not merely to economy, but to the full array of social relations. We also challenge the view that sees individuals as morally deficient, incapable of making ethical decisions, and often quite irrational, hence requiring all sorts of social engineering or political manipulations. A more positive and hopeful view of human nature must be advanced if we are to sustain our democratic institutions.

Personal responsibility is necessary in any democracy. But it can be an empty dream for many, unless we can equip them with the resources to achieve some sense of "enough" in material and social terms. It is one of the main obligations of government as servant to all its people to make this sort of responsibility a possibility for everyone.

However, responsibility is a complex issue. A key factor is the centrality of power in the role of leaders and public figures –in politics, business, professions, religions, sports, entertainment. Usually someone has a power advantage reflected in his/her social, political or economical status. Indeed, a Governor has more decision making power than his/her bodyguard, even though one can save the life of other. It is a plain fact of life that some people are more responsible than others, by the very nature of their work. This is particularly true in the effort to prevent corruption.

Society should expect and demand of government, business, civic, religious, educational, and all leaders of society to exert their positive and moral influence in the control of corruption. It is they, primarily, who must lead the charge. If business and government are going to CHANGE for the better, it has to be done by what we do, not what we say. If we are going to REALLY fight corruption we must be clear that we "mean business" . Otherwise, public discourse and real action become disassociated, and official discourse serves as a distortion from reality. When the ideas or promises we expose are cut off from self-knowledge and the decision to act, we become hypocritical, demagogues, self-serving, cynical.

Democracy has its compelling requirements. One is the political-will of elected officials and public servants to serve the common good. For all leaders, ethics in action is the only test of reality. Genuine political-will to fight corruption demands personal involvement and moral character. Make no mistakes about it. There are no excuses to actively fight the increased greed and selfishness we encounter in our daily public affairs.

Government is to serve, not to be served. A servant government must also be under the control of its citizens if it is to be a proper servant. Information –the right to know what is going on-, involvement –the right to participate in decisions rather than leave it all to "them"-, and individuality –the right to certain freedoms and protections from the government-, are three essentials of proper citizenship. Governments which say "elect us and leave it to us to act, always, in your best interest" are turning democracy into elected paternalism, or at worst, elected dictatorship.

The first duty of government, therefore, is to be transparent and inform its people. However, some people in authority assume that truth is either too important or too complicated, to be entrusted to ordinary folks. Sometimes this is true; in war or in a national emergency. More often it is an excuse because explanations are too difficult or too painful. In democracy, governments must be the servants of the people and thus a constant and rigorous accountability is the best assurance of its credibility.

Law, freedom, a system of checks and balances, are some of the essential ingredients of democracy. But perhaps the bottom line is faith and trust. Democracy requires a degree of trust that we often take for granted. It is much harder to build trust than to lose it. But that is precisely the problem with corruption once we let it become institutionalized. Fortunately, the vast majority of our public servants and elected officials are men and women of goodwill and responsibility. But the heritage of trust that has been the basis of our stable democracy is eroding through corruption. This trust is not a nonrenewable resource, but it is much easier to destroy than to renew.

That is why the problem of corruption is so ominous in their implications for Puerto Ricos’s future. We call for a deeper understanding of the moral ecology that sustains the lives of all of us in a democracy. "Moral ecology" is only another way of speaking of healthy institutions in public administration and ethical principles by which government and business must adhere.

At the Comptroller’s Office we have proposed a vast number of actions, decisions and strategies for twofold objectives: to prevent and control corruption through our campaign of "Cero Tolerancia a la Corrupcion" (CTC 2000 Plan was issued on December 15, 1999 and is available in the Website of the Comptroller’s Office – www.ocpr.gov.pr); and to enhance the effectiveness of Public Administration through the implementation of standards, criteria and indicators of quality and accountability in the management of finances, resources and all public goods.

This is not a romantic or idealistic project. Just the opposite. It is a viable public policy for short and long-term practical necessities of the new era in politics and business alike. We are beginning a constructive task that lies ahead for society and government. It is the open quest for freedom, justice, and peace that inspires democracy. It must actively involve all of our civil society by a widening of democratic participation in public affairs. This interdependent task counteracts predatory relations among individuals and groups and enables everyone to participate in the goods of society. For indeed the common good is the pursuit of the good in common.

As economics, politics, and government have become central in Puerto Rican life, our civil society must be strengthened by a clear vision of the common good. Rather, the political arena has become dominated by the aggregates of private interests which fight it out without regard to how the outcome affects the good of the society as a whole. Thus, Puerto Rican politics can become an arena of power in which, at times, competing interests battle without responsibility for, or a conception of, the common good.

A mass of claimants centered around interests groups is not a public. There is nothing wrong with interests and nothing wrong with having them represented. But a democratic government is more than the compromising of conflicting interests, important though as it is. Compromise, the art of the possible, is not enough. There are major problems to be solved and great ends to be pursued. The original idea of a "public" in the eighteen-century –valid today- was not just a congeries of interests groups but a reflective community capable of thinking about the common good, of taking the point of view that everyone must be cared for. Most of our problems are truly common. We all breathe the same air, use the same infrastructures, and are affected –one way or another- by the same violence, injustices, inequalities, civic decline, and ecological vulnerability.

Some institutions have a stronger responsibility in promoting the awareness of the common good. Educational institutions, churches, labor unions, financial and commercial associations, professional organizations, among others, play a key role. Let us teach ourselves and others that politics, economics and government should be a reflection of the aspiration to contribute to the happiness of the community, and not of the need to deceive or pillage the community.

Let us teach both ourselves and others that politics does not have to be the art of the possible, especially if this means the art of speculating, calculating, secret agreements, and pragmatic maneuvering, but that it can also be the art of the impossible, that is, the art of making both ourselves and the world better.

A mature civil society moves beyond the public’s belief that it can influence politics by merely voting every four years. We need to grow in collectively organized social and political participation other than voting and party activity: social movements, civic protests, and single-issue organizational activism, that mobilizes peoples and resources, like the case in Vieques. Can we empower our society and government in such a way as to fight corruption? Yes, we can. To renew our commitment we must invigorate an active citizenship and develop organizational forms in which their participation can be meaningful.

Those of us in government, as servants and representatives of the people, are truly called by faith: faith in our constituents, faith in ourselves, faith in our public institutions, faith in something that transcends our human condition, a higher awareness we can reach for. At the beginning of every day, or before an important meeting, many of us (silently) pray to God. Even in our Constitution we appeal to an Almighty God. What shall our prayers be for Puerto Rico? What if we pray and work and serve for a more humane and decent society? Let us hope the truism is true: that we ultimately get what we pray for…

Perhaps all who are in leadership roles, specially government elected officials, should carry in their pockets and minds the admonition of Gandhi on the "Seven Daily Sins in Today’s World":

"Wealth without work. Enjoyment without conscience. Knowledge without character. Business without morality. Science without humanity. Religion without sacrifice. And Politics without principles."

Manuel Díaz-Saldaña
Comptroller
Commonwealth of Puerto Rico

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