It’s the best way to ensure that elites start behaving better and to restore public trustby Bo Rothstein , Lennart Levi / November 18, 2016 / Leave a comment
The election of Donald Trump is just one example of what we are witnessing in many democracies around the world, namely a new type of popular anger against political and economic elites. Populist and xenophobic political parties and movements have been quick to exploit this feeling. In his surprisingly successful campaign, Trump accused his opponent and her party of systemic corruption, a message that obviously had an appeal.
However accurate that particular charge may be, trust in government is at an all-time low in many countries. In the UK, the Chilcot inquiry and the parliamentary expenses scandal have eroded faith in politicians. Internationally, we have also seen ethically dubious behaviour in the business world, for example in the Panama Papers and the Volkswagen scandal, and in international bodies such as Fifa. All these events have left many people believing that elites lack an adequate ethical compass.
There is a perception that current society is deeply unjust because elites are not acting for the common good, but are instead arranging things to benefit themselves and their allies. The behaviour of economic and political elites is central to overall social cohesion. Unless those who lead and carry responsibility for society’s key functions are perceived as honest and trustworthy, general trust in society will also fall. And a fairly high level of interpersonal trust is essential to a well-functioning and prosperous society.
These elites have one thing in common: they have almost without exception been trained at leading universities. In other words, there is not necessarily anything wrong with their knowledge, technical competences and intellectual abilities. Instead, the deficiencies are in their ability to understand and practice ethical behaviour. Some universities and colleges have recently come to realise the importance of this issue. However, the central questions of ethics are either missing or given a very modest role in most higher education institutions.
Transparency International estimates that 6bn people live in countries with a serious corruption problem. Internationally, the health sector is particularly hard hit by corruption, from medical personnel requiring bribes to companies who sell fake medicines. One can literally say that many people in the world are dying of corruption. In addition, one of the main reasons that people say they are dissatisfied with their lives is that they perceive themselves to be living under unjust and corrupt public institutions. The lack of ethics and the prevalence of corruption in the public sector is probably the biggest obstacle to social and economic development. Conversely, one can say that the most important asset of a society is the ethical quality of its public institutions.