David Frum

05.01.12

Our Secret Service Needs More…Aristotelian Ethics?

Recent scandals with the Secret Service and the GSA are certainly deplorable, but writing the Huffington Post, Eli Lehrer offers some important perspective. These stories are arguably newsworthy because they are rare and unlikely to happen:

Regrettable as these scandals are, they were all newsworthy precisely because they're not all that common. While it's possible and desirable to stop government officials from committing crimes on the public's time, simply spending money, even tax money, in a foolish fashion isn't a crime. In Colombia, where the Secret Service scandal took place, buying sex isn't necessarily illegal either. And trying to prevent every potentially foolish decision just isn't worth it for any enterprise inside or outside the government. Every purchase, personnel, and monitoring decision involves dozens of explicit and implicit tradeoffs involving employee morale, spending, convenience, and quality. Government procurement, despite some improvements in recent years, is still terribly burdensome and, in many cases, may spend thousands of dollars worth of employee time on "bargain shopping" that saves much less.

All sizable government agencies already have inspectors general that try to police their activities and a roster of ethics rules far more complex than those found in the overwhelming bulk of private enterprises. For good reason, almost all government agencies already operate far more openly than the typical private enterprise. In this context, extreme measures like banning all professional development events are likely to destroy agency morale and sap productivity for no good reason. Likewise, sequestering Secret Service agents in hotels during all off-duty time during travel could well damage morale in the agency that, after all, trains them to sacrifice their lives for top officials. In any case, both the Secret Service and GSA seem to have violated dozens of existing policies and simply enforcing those policies could have prevented the problems.

In the end, some degree of corruption is inevitable given the government's size. No enterprise that employs 2 million people and spends nearly $2.5 trillion could ever do everything well or honestly. Making government run more efficiently, something everyone wishes for, simply isn't possible if every move any federal worker makes has to be double checked in a way that a private business never would.

It should be noted that when it comes to ethics training, the Secret Service is going straight to the source when it comes to personal virtue:

About 100 U.S. Secret Service agents will take part in a two-day ethics training this week to be overseen by professors at the Johns Hopkins University — a response to the widening prostitution scandal that began in Colombia, agency and university officials said Monday.

The training, which past participants say covers a broad range of practical and theoretical ethics — including a review of Aristotle — comes as the Secret Service works to address allegations that its agents hired prostitutes in Cartagena days before President Barack Obama arrived in the country April 13 to attend a summit.

I am torn on this. On the one hand, I am sympathetic to Eli's assessment about how helpful sessions like this are likely to be. On the other hand, if they are reading Nicomachean Ethics, at least they are getting good training.