There’s an old saying, “one rotten apple spoils the whole barrel.” And it’s true in more ways than one. It means that corruption spreads, of course. But corruption does more than than that; it discredits good programs and frustrates the efforts of those who persist in pursuing the dream of a better world.
And it seems to me that corruption is far more acceptable today than it was when I was growing up.
I grew up in Jamaica, and my impression was that, on the whole, Jamaicans accepted the validity of such virtues as honesty, fairness and compassion. I heard the word “unconscionable” a lot back then. We were expected to have a conscience and we expected others to have one, too.
Jamaicans were not alone in this. When I was 16, I visited England on a World Youth Forum scholarship, and I was impressed by the honesty of the people. Newspaper vendors would set out a plate into which customers tossed coins to pay for their purchases. Some of the customers meticulously made change. Nobody was watching. Their conscience was their only restraint.
I noticed the same kind of self-policing honesty when I migrated to Canada. Politicians there rarely took advantage of their positions to loot the country. When they did it was big news.
I live in Florida today, and it seems to me that corruption has become commonplace in America. I imagine the change has taken place – to a greater or smaller extent – in other countries, too.
I just read in today’s news that Medicare fraud costs the US government $60 billion a year, for example. False claims are flooding the system, especially from poor areas, where people need such programs most. The federal government is belatedly taking steps to check the spread of this racket.
The impression I get is that, rich, poor and in-between, Americans rip off the government with alarming abandon. Even the homeless people I meet at the church next door seem to be in on it. One guy told me food stamps have become a kind of underground currency. He sells his food stamps and buys drugs and booze with the proceeds.
That’s small potatoes when you compare it with the billions of dollars that giant corporations and filthy-rich individuals rake in by abusing the tax code. And it’s a lot more innocent than the wholesale looting that big banks and stock traders get away with by manipulating the financial system.
Corruption is everywhere, it seems. The political system is inherently corrupt, permitting lobbyists to influence elected representatives through campaign contributions. The judicial system seems to be rife with injustice, some of it built in. Even the justices of the Supreme Court are suspect, their rulings so obviously determined by factors other than the evidence before them.
Still, I believe that the vast majority of Americans are honest. A lot of Americans are idealistic. They truly believe in the American dream.
There are too many bad apples, of course. And their corruption is spreading.
As long as this malady persists, no institution, however praiseworthy, can function with complete efficiency, no policy can fully yield the anticipated results, no program can achieve all of its goals.
But that doesn’t mean the institutions are at fault, or the policies misguided, or the programs futile.
Humanitarian policies and programs can make life more fulfilling. Good government can make society more humane.
With all the abuse, with all the mistakes, the reforms introduced over the years have achieved immensely favorable results. Society has come a long way from the days of Dickens, when orphans were punished for asking for a bowl of gruel and urchins sold matches in the streets to survive.
It’s true that a rotten apple spoils the whole barrel, but it’s also true that we mustn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.
We must hold on to the dream, weeding out the bad apples where we can, tweaking and revising programs and policies to make them less vulnerable to abuse, vigilantly scrutinizing elected representatives and the bureaucrats they are supposed to oversee.
For in the end, we the people are the only ones who can make things better. We are the ones with that magic wand – the vote.