In this age of character disturbance, there’s never a shortage of news stories about someone whose irresponsible actions caused great damage. And over the past few days, information has been coming to the fore about how some greedy and reckless executives at a very large bank engaged in risky bets that lost billions. As is typical these days, cries immediately went up for more federal oversight and regulation of an industry that has proven unwilling or unable to adequately manage itself. But can we ever really solve our problems by adding to the millions of laws already on the books?
The character crisis I define in my book Character Disturbance is far-reaching. No human enterprise is unaffected by it. Most of our economic and social woes can actually be traced to it. So it’s no wonder there’s so much interest in doing something about it. But putting our faith in legislation to resolve the problem is misguided. Unscrupulous characters always find ways around the rules. No matter how many laws and regulations we put into place, the selfish, greedy, and callous among us will always find a way to render them useless. We’ve all read how unethical politicians manage to channel huge sums of money into coffers without technically breaking the rules meant to limit donations. And we’re forever learning how crafty business executives find their way around paying any taxes on enormous profits. Besides, a great many laws crafted in recent times were passed in an attempt to close loopholes left by the laws that preceded them. This testifies to the fact that those intent on skirting the law always find a way to do so. So, if we can’t make people behave responsibly simply by passing legislation, what can we do to restore some social sanity?
There’s an old saying that one ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. The same principle applies to our current character crisis. It will take years of dedicated attention to instill and nurture in our young people the character sufficient to enable them to function responsibly as adults. And in the meantime, we need to do a much better job of holding the unscrupulous among us accountable. It takes courage to call people out on their misconduct and to bring about a day and time of reckoning. But we all must get better at doing exactly that. Instead of pinning our hopes on the government to protect us, each one of us must be willing to lead the way with respect to modeling integrity in ourselves and insisting upon it in others. Absolutely no one or no entity is too big to fail. And sometimes failure provides the only sufficient motivation to change course. All of us must reckon with the consequences of our actions. Holding ourselves and others to account – that’s the real answer. And we must also help create a climate in which principled behavior is more clearly valued and rewarded.
The character problem that has now reached crisis proportions did not develop overnight and will not be resolved with the snap of a finger or the passage of a thousand new rules. Because of where we are in this crisis, there will indeed be some very hard times ahead. And because the costs of this crisis continue to add up, there will be constant cries for someone to do something (which usually translates into the government passing yet more laws). But the rules for civil, responsible conduct always have to be written on a person’s heart. And there are tremendous risks with respect to the loss of personal freedoms if we keep trying to legislate our way out of this crisis. Not to mention all-too-common unintended consequence of further over-burdening those who are already behaving responsibly.
It will take a lot of dedication and time to resolve the social, political, and economic mess we’re in. But the task we face is clear: be the kind of person we want others to be, and hold one another to account. Like it or not, we’re all in this together. And we can certainly do better. It’s just that passing rules to make misbehavior more difficult won’t provide the inspiration necessary to get the challenging job before us done.