Friday, July 29, 2011

Can good people make it in corrupt systems?

In a recent post, I wrote about situational forces and the impact they can have on individual behavior.  The argument made is that good people can do terrible things under the right (or wrong) circumstances.  On Wednesday, this became a little more personal to me when a Provo City Council member, who is also one of my neighbors, was charged with 10 felonies relating to his dealings in local real estate development.  He isn't a next door neighbor and I've never been to his home, but I see him once a week or so and always got the impression that he was a pretty good guy--not someone I would take for a felon or defrauder.  The saddest part of it all is that he has a wife and young children that now have to deal with the fall out and find a way to hold a family together.  

I have no idea how much truth there is to the claims being made and don't care to make any kind of judgment.  It's just a sad situation and one that has brought me back to a question I have wondered about off and on over the years:  Can good people survive in systems or environments that seem to incentivize unethical and corrupt practices.  I first began asking this question as a new voter trying to make informed ballot decisions.  I saw the media regularly uncovering corrupt politicians and started to wonder if candidates in any very visible election or anyone in high profile public positions could hold on to their values and integrity.  As a student in an introductory political science class I asked this question of my professor (mostly because he gave us extra credit for visiting him during office hours).  After beating around the bush a little, he eventually told me that, no, he didn't think very many politicians stayed 100% honest (which is a little ironic given that until just a few months ago this professor was the chair of the Utah County Democrats now the chairman of the Utah County Democratic Party) and most compromised on their values.  Even as a fairly dense adolescent, I was a little shocked and pretty discouraged by his response.  And, voting that November wasn't as much fun as I thought it would be.

It would be unfair to paint all politicians or all business people as dishonest, but the reality is that those who work in these environments are often under extreme pressure to produce results, be it a victorious campaign or great quarterly report.  Similar pressures exist for professional and high profile collegiate athletics, some branches of academic research, and plenty of other settings as well.  And, because we are increasingly becoming a society which values "results" above all else (and, by results, we usually mean things that are easy to measure like profits, votes, and wins), we create systems that reward "producers," sometimes at the cost of values, relationships, and community.  

In my heart of hearts I know that there are plenty of good politicians, CEOs, and sports executives that are successful and upstanding.  But, I wonder how rare they are becoming and how many of them we'll see 10 or 25 years from now.  

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