The Journal Gazette
Friday, March 27, 2020 1:00 am

Kryptonite of conflicts having lethal consequences

Abe Schwab

I have a friend who refers to mini Reese's Peanut Butter Cups as his kryptonite. For me, it's doughnuts, pizza and chocolates.

We call these our kryptonite because they lead us to poor or compromised judgments. We're both in pretty good shape for our age. And we try to eat healthy. But there are some things that seem to take over our judgment, not because we've decided to abandon our healthy habits but as a kind of automatic response.

This kryptonite weakens us. If we expose ourselves to the temptations and try to resist, we fail. It's best if we just remove the temptations so we don't have a choice. If there's no chocolate in the house, I can't eat it.

It would be better if we removed the temptations for our “public” servants. Sens. Richard Burr, R-North Carolina; Kelly Loeffler, R-Georgia; Dianne Feinstein, D-California; James Inhofe, R-Oklahoma; and David Perdue, R-Georgia, are all under scrutiny for their sale of stock at a time they were being briefed on the coming COVID-19 outbreak. Following these briefings, they sold their stock in industries likely to be negatively affected. At the same time, they were not warning the public.

Their personal stock portfolios were their kryptonite. Rather than fulfill their responsibility to the public, they took care of themselves. This is the predictable effect of a conflict of interest.

Whenever an individual's personal interest is at stake in their judgment, they automatically favor that personal interest. It's part of our psychological response. And, so, in a way the actions of these senators are our fault.

We've been too blithe about the effects of conflicts of interest on public servants in this country for far too long. We've been unconcerned with the effects of conflicts of interest on their judgments and actions. And now we are paying the price.

Public servants are supposed to be looking out for us. And they're supposed to be using intelligence briefings to make decisions that serve the public interest. That they didn't do that is predictable.

We put them in a position where they were destined to fail. We put them in a position where we were expecting them to resist the temptation of personal advantage. And whenever we do that, we find that individuals favor their personal interest over the public good.

The starkest example of this is probably the president himself, who consistently describes our current situation inaccurately. He's keeps saying we've beaten COVID-19 despite the fact that's obviously not true.

It may be he doesn't understand what's going on. But it's just as likely he recognizes the effect COVID-19 is having on the economy and he wants us to get back to work. It's also likely he recognizes the effect it's having on his specific businesses, and he wants those to be able to be reopened.

Like the senators, the president has a private interest that runs against his public responsibility. And that he favors his personal interest is predictable. Whenever you put someone in a position where their private interests run against their public responsibility, where they have a conflict of interest, we put them in a position to make bad judgments.

The right response is that we should lock the kryptonite away. We should keep the mini Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, the pizza, the doughnuts and the chocolates out of the house. And we should prohibit members of Congress from having control over stocks. And we should enforce the rules that prohibit the president from owning and profiting from his private businesses.

Until COVID-19, the effects of our public servants' conflicts of interest seemed less real and less pressing. COVID-19 has turned them deadly.

Abe Schwab is professor of philosophy at Purdue Fort Wayne who specializes in applied ethics.

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