America’s Preoccupation with Ethics in Government

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America’s Preoccupation with Ethics in Government
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America’s Preoccupation with Ethics in Government

Vincent R. Johnson

30 St. Mary’s L. J. 717 (1998).

    Many Americans today expect that the law can, should, and will be used to ensure a level playing field in public life.  Americans expect the law to eliminate, insofar as possible, any unfair advantage that might be gained through the use of special connections to those who exercise the power of government.  There are numerous rules applicable to judges, lawyers, and public officials that each seek to promote equal treatment for all persons by limiting the ability of persons to use special connections and privileged relationships to gain an advantage in public affairs.

    There were two threads of development in America during the twentieth century that may account for the presence of such rules.  The first involves the search for social equality, including the struggles between the rich and poor, black and white, and residents and new immigrants.  The second relates to a very different but parallel search for ethical certainty.  The rise of consumerism, the nature of the American media, and the “statutorification” of American law have been integral parts of that quest.

    These developments suggest that the present American preoccupation with ethics in government is neither surprising nor likely to cease.  Yet, the pursuit of good government may pose a difficult challenge.  The task may be to separate the types of favors and relationships that corrupt government and abuse power from those that do nothing more than smooth the rough edges of an imperfect legal system.  It is not easy to draw the line separating practices which give government a human face and make its actions efficient from other forms of conduct which unfairly handicap innocent persons.  The challenge is to decide how much ethics in government is enough, but not too much.  That, of course, is a difficult question.

Keywords: public ethics, governmental ethics, American legal system, guanxi, social equality, poverty, racial minorities, immigration, ethical certainty, American ethics, consumerism, Chinese governmental ethics, unethical conduct, official wrongdoing, legal reform, professional ethics, ethical standards, special connections, privileged relationships, collective responsibility, corruption, rule of law, nepotism, special treatment.

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