Predictably Corrupt

By: Ariel Oseran, MQG Blog Editor

The dissolution of the Knesset and the early elections which followed nipped in the bud some very important reforms, which will all have to wait to pass in the new session of the Knesset, if at all. One such reform was to adopt a new code of ethics for the members of Knesset. According to the proposed code, it intended “to foster proper behavior of MKs, to maintain the respect of the Knesset and ensure its integrity”. The new code also outlined the routine and proper conduct of the Knesset, proposes new rules of conduct for its MKs, adds additional means to avoid conflicts of interest, regulates the conduct of lobbyists and prohibits the receiving of gifts.

The proposed code was based on the recommendations of a 2006 committee headed by retired Supreme Court Justice, Yitzhak Zamir, which were unfortunately buried under substantial amounts of litigation, leading to its approval being continuously postponed from session to session. In the previous year, numerous discussions were held in the House Committee intended to promote the new code, however these discussions had very little attendance by MKs, and when the they did appear, they rebuffed all attempts to solidify the new rules of conduct and sought to dilute many of the proposed recommendations. In October of last year, there was another attempt to codify these recommendations, however the heads of the major parties objected to the move and sought to block the legislation.

Today there is no complete, coherent or orderly code to address in a clear and defined manner the proper ways of conduct and moral standards expected of MKs. Although several rules of conduct do actually appear in Knesset regulations, these are insufficient and overly lenient. This creates an “ethical vacuum” which leads to excessive use of the criminal judicial system, thus eliminating any distinction between criminal and moral standards. And so, in the eyes of many elected officials, so long as it’s legal, it’s allowed.

In an attempt to further understand the importance of a code of ethics for elected officials, we sought the aid of Professor Dan Ariely, a professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University. Ariely is also the author of Predictably Irrational and The Upside of Irrationality, both of which became New York Times best sellers, as well as The Honest Truth about Dishonesty. “In our studies on the subject of corruption, we are able to see that people are generally fair and honest. They may cheat a little and cut corners every once and a while, but not too much. However, we see that once they give or receive a bribe, they tend to cheat more and more”, explains Ariely.

Ariely explains that once you put people – and in our case, elected officials – in a new environment where it is clear to them that it is one that does not denounce corruption, they suddenly “forget” all the values they learned throughout the years and begin to embrace the corrupt behavior of their new surroundings. According to Ariely, as long as we don’t change the way in which corruption is extremely easy to act upon and refrain from rebuking it, the case will only deteriorate. It is not enough to simply replace the people who are in power, but a much more comprehensive strategy is required in order to eradicate this phenomenon.

Ariely also points out that the chances of a politician “cheating” is not determined by their perceived probability of getting caught, but rather in the way they perceive their behavior as being right or wrong. Generally speaking, when people see someone like them cheating or stealing, it suddenly changes their perception of it being considered wrong. And when their perceptions change, they begin to behave differently.

“Let’s assume for instance that a politician has a criminal record for breaking the law and was even imprisoned for his offences, and after serving his sentence, he returns to power. What are we actually saying to all the other elected officials? We’re basically telling them: ‘Look, here is someone who acted immorally, and we have no problem with it. You can learn from this what we see as an appropriate way to behave’. By doing so, we are socially accepting such conduct”, says Ariely.

“Looking back, it’s safe to say that we successfully overcame the phenomenon of picking wild flowers”, continues Ariely. At the time, when many were used to picking wild flowers, everyone saw other people doing it and therefore felt comfortable doing it themselves. There was practically an epidemic of picking wildflowers. However, over time, with the aid of intensive advertising campaigns and educational activities for children, we were able to make it clear that this is wrong, and today hardly anyone does it anymore. I think issues such as cheating and corruption are indeed much bigger problems, but we need to think about them in the same way. We have to figure out how to make people understand that acting in such ways is morally and socially unacceptable, and so long as we refrain from doing so, unfortunately, the situation will not change. I know it’s a quite depressing, but I think it shows us the direction we need to take in order to improve.”

As for the idea of legislating a code of ethics for the members of Knesset, Ariely explains: “I think it is definitely important to think in that direction because the real problem is that people don’t completely understand the obstacles that lie before them, and for this reason they tend to behave dangerously. It’s not necessarily that everyone is a villain, although sometimes it may seem that way, it’s simply that politicians often find themselves in places and situations that we would rather have them stay away from. So in my opinion, it is very important to legislate a code of ethics for MKs which will clarify the proper norms in which politicians are required to conduct themselves, what is expected of them, and what isn’t.”