Where the Villains Are

June 27, 1995|By GARRY WILLS

CHICAGO — Chicago. -- "Government'' is a swear word now. We are constantly told that it is a nest of privilege, corruption and incompetence. One wonders how we ever won a war with this foolish thing in charge.

Those who speak this way often want to let private industry or private charity take on what the government has bungled -- or at least to ''devolve'' activities away from the federal government toward smaller units, to state or local jurisdictions.

Yet business news is full of tales about privilege, corruption and incompetence. The Wall Street Journal prints them every day. Some industries, like tobacco, have lied to people for years, conducting tests in secret to arrive at conclusions they deny in public. Shoddy goods lead to call-backs of malfunctioning brakes in cars, lethal contents in food and dangerous toys.

State governments are at least as susceptible to corruption as the federal government. Spiro Agnew proved that. He stole his money as governor, not as vice president. The charges against the current governor of Arkansas are typical of suits against state executives. More of them, proportionately, have gone to jail than have congressmen.

Some of the religious right want to end welfare so we can all give to private charities. The former head of the United Way, William Aramony, has just been sentenced to seven years in prison for stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars for his private love life (and that was just the loss that could be proved).

The NAACP just lost its leader in a scandal that used organization funds for a private payoff. A group of churches were victimized by John Bennett, who conducted the New Era Philanthropy.

Some say reform is best pursued by private institutions. At one time they might have pointed to the Wilderness Society as doing good work without being a government agency. Perhaps it did, but its president is now charged with fighting to preserve forests on the one hand while he was privately logging 400,000 feet of his own timber with the other hand.

I do not mean to parrot the right-wingers. They say the government can do no good. I am not answering that business can do no good, or private charity, or state units. I agree with religious thinkers who contend that humankind is subject to original sin. Weakness will show up in every human endeavor, at whatever level. It is in the federal government, of course. But that is no reason to speak of it as peculiarly there.

In fact, it is usually harder to pull off corrupt schemes in the public sector, precisely because of one of the things its critics most resent -- the paperwork of bureaucracy. Official transactions leave an ample paper trail. Public money must be bTC accounted for at every stage. This itself costs money, but it makes it easier to keep track of money.

It is harder to pin down the head of the NAACP than the head of HUD precisely because the private charity has to work less through public reports on its activities. Government agencies are accountable not only for money spent but for actions performed. They must report to superiors who are accountable to voters, with elections occurring on a regular schedule.

Some of the worst government scandals of recent times -- Aldrich Ames' assault on national security and the lives of his fellow CIA members, for instance -- took place in the protected pockets where a recent cult of military secrecy has overridden the constitutional requirements of accountability.

The answer to corruption is vigilant accountability, not mere blanket attacks on ''the government.'' The government is us.

Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.

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