January 1978 issue of the Socialist Standard
Ethics: the principles of conduct governing an individual or a group. More and more is this word ethics becoming a commonplace in America. Switch on your TV or radio and you frequently catch discussions by politicians, business people, or youngsters aspiring toward a business or a political career on that subject. How much of a percentage of profit is within the bounds of ethics? How far may a political office-holder go in private business operations without being guilty of conflict of interest? And so on.
In passing, it is noteworthy that such concerns do surface among a population which—according to some members of the scientific community and most defenders of a competitive as opposed to a cooperative society— are naturally greedy and inherently inclined to get the better of one another. Interesting indeed that a system that legally enshrines the warning: caveat emptor (let the buyer beware) seems unable to suppress outraged reaction to certain consequences of that philosophy. Particularly now, in what has been called the post-Watergate era, are politicians who make up the several branches of the Federal Government fair game for investigative reporters and watchdog organizations. (Prime target today seems to be Speaker of the House Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill, quite possibly the second most powerful person in the US political scheme and, ironically, one of the first to “put the finger” on then President Nixon and to bring him down in disgrace. He has been a suspected link in the favor-buying activities in Washington of the South Korean CIA and he is currently being exposed in a personal “conflict of interest” operation; in brief, using his high office as a means of feathering his nest in a private business deal.)
The population, most of it working-class, is expected to be concerned about such matters. “It is our money they are squandering and appropriating . ." we are told by the petitioners for Congressional codes of ethics. And the reaction, generally, to the efforts of the crusaders for honest government falls into an expected pattern: (1) Agreement, “let’s put a stop to it!” or (2) a shrug of the shoulders and an attitude, expressed or silent, “what difference does it make? They’re all thieves!” All too infrequently is the petitioner confronted with the real world by a socialist who “tells it like it is”.
The fact is that it is not our money and it is not the sort of crusade that those who must work for a living should interest themselves in. But it makes more sense to understand why this is so rather than to merely shrug it off as normal thievery. For with understanding can come desire to do something intelligent about ending the social arrangement that really does create our problems. It is not the illegal or shady operations, the conflicts of interest, by business people or politicians that bring us our miseries. The loot involved here is not working-class money but part of the surplus-value that has been legally expropriated from us in the honest operation of the capitalist system. “But see here!” they complain. “All that throwing around of Government money means that we have to pay more for everything.” Just like the effect on prices of shoplifting, according to popular propaganda. Any sort of thievery or extortion or conflict of interest forces prices upward, they argue.
But this is nonsense, as reflection should show. Prices are not determined, arbitrarily, by purveyors of merchandise. In the long run, they reflect the socially-necessary labor-time in the commodities and they are certainly affected by the state of the world market and by supply and demand. Merchandizers know that competition prevents them from marking prices up, at will. But there is another side to this question.
Can one imagine the effect on prices were illegal activity of all sorts to end? “Crime stocks” would plummet, bankrupting those companies involved in producing the variety of equipment used in combatting crime; unemployment would soar to all-time record highs; the sharp increase in Government moneys needed to augment social agencies would bring ruinous levels of inflation. Viewed from that angle (“conflict of interest”) violators, ordinary swindlers, and thieves of all sorts are performing a useful function in stabilizing prices to some extent, at least. So bourgeois economics would say . . .
So the question that should bother working people is: does it really matter to those whose lot it is to produce and surrender their surplus-value that a percentage of the loot is hi-jacked from the original expropriators? We think not. And as far as ethics is concerned, the very concept arises when the moral principles desired are not operable. Would you welcome a world in which mankind lives and works in harmony, where the interests of each are the interests of all, where conflict of interest is impossible? Such a world is possible but not before we get rid of world capitalism.
Harmo, WSP, Boston.