Reflecting on the stranger-than-fiction scandal in the Illinois governor’s office, Virginia’s political scientist/philosopher, Larry Sabato, published this comment on his Website two days ago:
A system of government or politics can be at least as corrupting as human nature itself. We have studied politicians in close proximity for years, and as much as it may disappoint the cynics, we have not found politicians to be venal as a class. While there are a number of individual exceptions, most professional politicians, especially those already in public office, want to do good or seek to do the right thing, if doing good is an option that does not result in their political demise.
However, if the "normal and customary" practices of campaigning engaged in both parties are seedy, and if a candidate believes "everybody's doing it, and if I don't do it, I may lose," then most politicians will suspend their ethical codes. They will willingly accept a distasteful means that ensures what they regard as the good and essential end of their continued power. In other words, otherwise ethical people are put at a disadvantage by a corrupting system and almost forced to do unto others as they are being done to.
Strict ethicists will correctly argue that the truly honorable person would not stoop to conquer, whatever the provocation. Yet reasonable reformers must keep in mind that the professional politician has a "power gene" in his or her genetic code that overrides all usual inhibitions to achieve victory or maintain power--and genetic engineering, however advanced it may become, will never be able to change that reality.
That analyis, first published in 1996 in Dirty Little Secrets, which Sabato co-authored with Glenn Simpson, is relevant today beyond the political scene.. Reread those paragraphs with business people replacing politicians. And change the kind of DNA involved: replace victory or maintain power with competitive drive.
After making those changes, you have a pretty good insight into today’s Wall Street scandals and how unregulated competition corrupted even many otherwise ethical people.
But the Sabato/Simpson closing sentence above is too pessimistic. Serious time behind bars can be a great deterrent, if seriously applied to enough guilty politicians and business people.