Sixty-five years ago, Illinois U.S. Sen. Paul H. Douglas began his book with the dubious title, “Ethics in Government,” with this, “The American public has become increasingly uneasy in recent months about the moral practices of many government officials.”
Times change, yet, his words resonate and apply with equal force today, reminding us that public trust is fragile and can be damaged by deception, hypocrisy, selfish behavior, abuse of power, willful wrongdoing, incompetence and inaction.
The 114-page book is based on a series of lectures that Douglas gave at Harvard University. Douglas discusses the American public’s increasing uneasiness “about moral practices of many government officials,” pointing to “disclosures” shaking public confidence at every level of government, and the public believing “ours is a degenerate age and that we have lost ground morally.”
Douglas slams the ethical standards under which government officials operate as needing “radical improvement” and much of the book offers a number of reforms he regards as essential to prevent and deter improper and illegal conduct by officials, employees and entities.
First a little background on “the conscience of the Senate,” as Sen. Douglas was known. Douglas, a passionate social reformer and friend of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Jane Addams, taught economics at the University of Chicago and took principled stands on public issues. He won a seat on the Chicago City Council in 1939, served in the Pacific during World War II despite his Quaker religion (he was wounded twice, suffering permanent injury to his left arm) and elected to the U.S. Senate as a Democrat in 1948.
After three terms, Douglas, age 74, lost to Charles Percy in 1966. Douglas garnered a reputation for uncompromising honesty, integrity and independence. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. called him “the greatest of all senators” for his work advancing civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s. Douglas died in 1976.
Douglas writes that the government’s size and effect on people’s daily lives means that “even a small percentage of misbehavior on the part of  officials can do a vast amount of harm.” He contends that a public official’s character has an impact on the public — an unethical politician encourages others to be dishonest while a high-minded politician sets an example for imitation.
Douglas continues, “The moral effect of example is, therefore, the most important reason why we should raise the standards of politics and the behavior of our public officials.” Douglas calls for “a moral regeneration” to “give us a loathing for the shoddy and the corrupt as well as a deep desire for integrity.”
Douglas stresses that government should not be “an unmoral field,” but rather “the whole area of government” should be treated “as a vital part of the ethical life” and conducted “on the highest possible level.” To accomplish his goals, Douglas prescribes “guiding principles and codes backed up by certain social sanctions.”
He hopes that “penalties imposed upon the corrupters and the corrupted, the seducers and the seduced would … serve as a restraint upon both groups.” He especially denounces those “in positions of honor and power” who “use those positions to enrich themselves and their friends.”
Most observers would say Douglas might have been a bit too optimistic when it comes to rooting out government corruption, cronyism, mismanagement and callousness.
Many of Douglas’ recommendations were implemented in the decades that followed. Among his proposals are better pay and an ethical code for public officials as a way to offset the lure of gifts, future employment, private business interests and lobbying after leaving office.
For Douglas, institutional improvements were not enough, and America has to seek “a deeper set of moral values” because “the state is but the individual writ large,” and “[t]he faults which we see in government are all too often the reflection of our own moral failures.”
Essentially, the virtuous Douglas sees the moral climate of America as the cause or, at least, the facilitator of immoral and unethical public officials. Were Douglas alive today, he once again would be pressing for moral regeneration in our society, and once again, we could not afford to ignore him.