Standards of Behavior for Officials

Democracies will never function well until standards of behavior for officials are defined and the officials are held accountable for meeting those standards. Yearning for honest officials may be naive; demanding the public definition of required standards of behavior is not. Far better the implementation of strict standards of behavior for officials than to suffer “a long train of abuses and usurpations” leading to “absolute Despotism.” 


I posed a very rude question on this blog yesterday, but rude or not, democracies need to wrestle with such questions. Today, let’s approach the issue of the quality of governance more gently with another question:

Do democracies need to hold public officials to standards of official behavior?

By “official behavior,” I refer to the acts they take as officials, rather than in their private lives.

Imagine some surely imaginary scenarios, such as a leader who lies to the people about his reasons for launching a war of choice or a general who lies (either to the people or to his commander-in-chief) about how well he is managing his campaign during a war, or a leader who whips up a war fever for some private agenda. These are, by any reasonable moral standard, truly criminal acts, acts that either cause or greatly risk the deaths of thousands. The worst acts of what we are pleased to call “terrorism” ever known pale by comparison with such crimes. Yet, the leaders of democracies are almost never punished for them. Indeed, it is not even clear if they are technically “illegal.”

By what standard would guilt even be proven in court? Suppose a politician makes his career by calling for war, year after year, against some antagonist that never attacks, claiming that a threat nevertheless exists and walks, year after year, smiling to the bank with billions in foreign military aid from a naive patron. Were such deception ever to occur, how would one prove it? He can always claim he really believed there was a threat and that it was precisely the military aid that prevented disaster.

The problem of creating standards of behavior for officials in a democracy is not a simple one. “Let the voters decide” clearly does not work; the voters almost never choose to educate themselves sufficiently to make informed decisions and, indeed, hardly can, given the collusion between parties and by the media, not to mention the fog of classification under which every official act is buried for the protection of the guilty. (And, by the way, I actually do know that some secrets are worth keeping, but these are few and far between, while the secrets to prevent the voters from educating themselves about official guilt are all-pervasive.)

But even the attempt to define standards would at least put officials on notice and perhaps attract public attention to the difference between official claims and reality. We have standards for bank clerks and engineers; why not for the men and women who have their finger on the nuclear button? Just for one (surely imaginary) example, imagine a general conducting a foreign campaign who claims he is making progress when statistics indicate that enemy attacks are increasing. Or imagine a regime that hands billions of dollars of aid to rich financial corporations deemed “too big to fail” without A) accounting publicly for what the welfare recepients do with those taxpayer funds or B) holding the CEO’s of those corporate welfare queens accountable for the actions that led to the need for the welfare in the first place. Might one be able to define a simple standard of behavior such that these acts could be found, in a court of law, to be punishable crimes?

I dare say, one could, and I would further propose that a set of standards be defined and that all officials above a certain grade automatically have their careers reviewed by, say, the Supreme Court before retirement to determine whether or not grounds for referral to the Department of Justice might exist, with both their right to further government office and their pensions withheld pending a decision.

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