The huge banner between columns of the Roman Catholic Cathedral heralded over the streets of Cape Town, South Africa — “ANTI-CORRUPTION.” The Archbishop explained to visiting Indiana pastors that the greatest post-apartheid evil they face is corruption. Politicians, businessmen, criminal gangs employ a dirty economy, black markets, and evil deeds to gain power and wealth for themselves and to keep the masses enslaved in poverty.
A leader constructing a community center and apartments in India said that almost half the cost was money paid under the table. The Prime Minister of India recently introduced new currency in an unsuccessful attempt to uncover such illicit money. Unfortunately, wealthy lawbreakers had already laundered billions into secret bank accounts abroad. The world is awash in dirty money and ill-gotten gains.
We are fortunate that our country still has a strong legal system, basic civic and personal morality in sufficient numbers, along with trust in our institutions to keep us from reaching the depth of corruption that pollutes and destroys economies, political systems and character in many parts of the world. Lest complacency lead us into a false security and even haughtiness, we must recognize our slippery ladders of descent to the abyss.
Political ladders are greased with temptations. A retired Congressman of impeccable integrity noted that he had to raise $2 million each year to fund campaigns. He said soberly, “If I had 30 minutes between meetings, and my administrative assistant handed me a list of 10 constituents for returned calls, including a single mother needing assistance and a wealthy donor to my campaign, you can guess who would receive my call?” Imagine the pressures when shady funds are donated below the table to win access and power. Lobbyists funnel money as donations and perks, sometimes as illegal bribes, to win tax benefits and contracts for special interests, corporations and wealthy donors. We would be naive to ignore the almost irresistible temptations of corruption.
Multinational corporations operate in countries where graft and corruption are considered a normal part of doing business. Income from such business is often hidden by tax loopholes and then in offshore accounts. The bottom line becomes addictive, no matter what eventual danger to corporations and individuals. Inflated charges hide dishonesty and kickbacks. Main street becomes a place where everything is greatly discounted, but nothing is a bargain. Dishonesty reaches down to individual workers. An old saying, “An honest day’s labor for an honest dollar” is replaced by malingering workers who sabotage products and by owners who provide slave wages and no benefits, often to undocumented workers who cannot complain. The god they worship is folded in their wallets.
We are fortunate in Montgomery County to have honest local officials, businesses and leaders. We still have a margin to stay near the top and avoid slipping into a dark abyss of corruption. Like a pandemic or cancer, moral decline must be stopped or it will destroy. A commitment to and revival of public morality is essential. Individual personal morality of citizens is the foundation. Such morality requires standards of conduct for everyone higher than the law requires. We must demand, expect and encourage truthfulness and integrity from our leaders and institutions — and from ourselves.
Raymond B. Williams, Crawfordsville, LaFollette Distinguished Professor in the Humanities emeritus, contributed this guest column.