That statement has been attributed to Sir Robert Walpole, an English statesman of the 1700s. What was apparently true then is still a major factor in today's world of polities and big business. Unethical compromise and conspiracy are very much a part of the fabric of modern society.
Ernest Fitzgerald was no ordinary Department of Defense employee. During his tenure as cost analyst and program evaluator, he had received outstanding performance ratings. In 1967 he was nominated for the Department of Defense distinguished civilian service award. Unfortunately, Fitzgerald was one of those types who didn't let fame and fortune get in the way of his honesty. In 1966 he began informing defense executives about massive cost overruns in both the C5-A and Minuteman missile programs. "I think," he wrote in a letter to higher authorities, "the Minuteman program has suffered and is suffering from its own credibility gap. Some time back, lying was a way of life in the program. Financial figures were plucked from thin air, and deceptive technical information was presented as a matter of course.... The solution to this problem is ultrasimple: Tell the truth, no matter how painful." But to Air Force officials and the defense brass the truth, in this case, had to be repressed. The Secretary of the Air Force subsequently charged that Fitzgerald had "hurt his relationship with people in the Air Force by the manner in which he carried out his job." Fitzgerald's superiors chose to ignore the real problem and instead focused their grilling on him. He soon found his performance ratings declining from outstanding to satisfactory. He in turn observed that "opponents of cost control proposals tried to ignore the analysis or ridicule the analysts without coming to grips with the facts." Fitzgerald would not be denied. Some of his charges came to the attention of Congress. A series of hearings was convened and the pressure for truth and light began to tell on the defense executives. In their eyes Fitzgerald was no longer an eccentric organizational gadfly; he now posed a major threat to their hierarchical existence. Strenuous efforts were made to have his role in the hearing reduced to that of a backup witness. If anything, the Air Force brass didn't want to be the subject of a full-blown series of inquiries by Congress. Fitzgerald spoke the uncompromising truth at the hearings. From then on he was treated as an "organizational untouchable." His work was reduced to mundane tasks like monitoring cost overruns on bowling alleys in Thailand. One of his assistants was reassigned. Finally, in November 1969, Fitzgerald was summarily told that his services were no longer required - his job was being "abolished" as part of the "current Air Force retrenchment program." When the Secretary of the Air Force was later pressed by prominent congressmen about the incident, he replied: "I did not decide to fire Mr. Fitzgerald. I prefer to use the term, the correct term, 'to abolish his job.'" This bureaucratic double-talk quickly brought a chorus of laughter from the press, the audience, and congressmen who were attending the hearing. Not satisfied with a simple dismissal, the Pentagon brass tried to further cover their tracks by charging that Fitzgerald had leaked confidential documents to Congress. They accused him of having "moral lapses" and even tried to dredge up vague and tenuous insinuations that "conflict of interest" was involved.
A Not-So-Isolated Example
Ernest Fitzgerald was later vindicated by subsequent events, and the Air Force was forced to reinstate him. But his case is not unique. He is only one of many who in their conscientious efforts to preserve some semblance of decency and truth have run afoul of the political and corporate establishment. Men in high places can and are bought off in our society - with surprising ease. In most cases principle succumbs to expediency as power- and position-conscious individuals do a fast shuffle in looking out for old number one. In recent years the military has shown classic symptoms of turning men into soulless corporate zombies. "If a man wants to get on," writes Ward Just in Military Men, "he goes along with his superior officer, which means making few waves.... Colonel David Hackworth, one of the most outspoken and abrasive (as well as the most decorated) officers in the Army," related what happened to individuals who only planned to compromise until they reached the top. "'He [a two-star general] wanted his star, which is all right, and he admitted to me once that he would have to yield, to compromise to achieve his end. He said to me that once he had three stars he would straighten it out, fix the system. And that's the irony, because you're a different man then. You become the guy who you started out to impersonate'" (Military Men, pp. 120-121). Another officer, Lieutenant Colonel Edward King, also found that moral convictions could play havoc with a career in today's Army. Then opposed to the Vietnam War, he wrote a letter to the Secretary of the Army stating: "It is impossible to render honest, beneficial service to the nation or the Army in the atmosphere of fear, repression, injustice and selfish career promotion and advancement - seeking that flourishes within the command levels of the U.S. Army." The Army in return asked King to undergo a psychiatric examination.
The Corporate Cop-Out
The highly competitive career-oriented environment found in many modern corporations also tends to rob individuals of their personal integrity and moral scruples. The pressure to produce, meet corporate goals, and turn a handsome profit often take their toll. As Vance Packard wrote: "Those who reach the top level of hierarchy are, increasingly, those who have successfully shed their rough edges of individualism. "Some corporate hiring agents are favorably impressed if an applicant has been through military training because that training, among other things, has taught him to accommodate to hierarchy" (The Status Seekers, p. 109). One executive involved in a price-fixing scheme by the General Electric Corporation in the 1950s perhaps best summed up some of the primal forces that shape the thinking and personalities of many in positions of power: "I guess I am an organization man," he told the investigating congressional committee. "I felt I had to go along with the price-fixing scheme or I couldn't get promoted in the company. I always felt guilty about it, yes, but I felt I had to go along.". Another executive explained: "The tendency is for executives, who get stock options, big salaries, pensions and so on, to accept the facts of life going on around them. It is very hard to quit when you get a big compensation, and it's also tough to be a nonconformist under such conditions." The problem is compounded in government circles, where it is often difficult to identify the real villains. Politicians and bureaucrats are usually quick to make pious pronouncements about the sins of business and labor, but will vigorously decry any efforts to eliminate wasteful spending as a threat to "the vital public service" role of government. The upshot is that countless thousands of less-than-public-spirited individuals can cleverly disguise the perpetuation of their existence at taxpayer expense.
An Age-Old Problem
Those who tend to unashamedly voice their personal convictions often end up being placed in virtual political exile. While a few individuals may profit politically or economically, in the long run it's the man in the street, the citizen who has no voice or control, who suffers. But in this respect there is nothing all that unique about our society. For centuries men have found ways to oppress their fellowmen in order to maintain a firm grip on the reins of power. Ancient Israel in the time of the kings certainly was no exception. Notice how the prophet Isaiah addressed this problem in the tenth chapter of his book: "Woe unto them that decree unrighteous decrees [legislation designed to benefit not the majority but powerful political supporters, entrenched bureaucrats, government monopolies, and public employee unions?], and that write grievousness which they have prescribed; to turn aside the needy from judgment, and to take away the right from the poor of my people, that widows may be their prey, and that they may rob the fatherless!" (Verses 1-2.) Also, in the third chapter, he wrote: "The Lord will enter into judgment with the ancients of his people, and the princes thereof [the leaders]: for ye have eaten up the vineyard; the spoil of the poor is in your houses. What mean ye that ye beat my people to pieces, and grind the faces of the poor?" (Verses 14-15.) The same practices were prevalent in New Testament times. "Look here, you rich men," the apostle James wrote, "now is the time to cry and groan with anguished grief because of all the terrible troubles ahead of you. Your wealth is even now rotting away, and your fine clothes are becoming mere moth-eaten rags. The value of your gold and silver is dropping fast [like today's dollar?], yet it will stand as evidence against you, and eat your flesh like fire. That is what you have stored up for yourselves, to receive on that coming day of judgment. For listen! Hear the cries of the field workers whom you have cheated of their pay [in the mad rush to maximize profits and prices above all else, and the tendency of some managers, past and present, to pay minimal wages until forced to raise them. Also the eagerness of politicians to rob people through inflationary governmental spending policies]. Their cries have reached the ears of the Lord of Hosts" (James 5:1-5, The Living Bible). As long as motives of political expediency and preserving the status quo overshadow moral and ethical considerations, mankind will continue to be plagued with the same basic problems. Men of principle and conviction will be driven from seats of power. James Bryce, writing in The American Commonwealth, eloquently explained what can happen when people in positions of leadership fail to have the courage of their political convictions. In criticizing the Whig party for not taking a strong stand against slavery, Bryce noted that "they did not perceive that in trying to preserve their party they were losing hold of the people, alienating from themselves the men who cared for principle in politics, sinking into a mere organization without a faith worth fighting for...." Perhaps Bryce's narrative on American history stands as a warning to us today if we are unwilling to demand the most difficult and courageous course of unwavering honesty and integrity from ourselves, our leaders, and our institutions.