- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 5, 2003

Against the backdrop of the December resignations of Cardinal Bernard Law and Sen. Trent Lott, Time magazineselected three whistleblowers to share its coveted "Person of the Year" honors. Sherron Watkins, Cynthia Cooper and Coleen Rowley earned their place on the cover of Time by blowing the whistle on incompetence and misconduct at corporate giants Enron and WorldCom and at the FBI. And so 2002, a year marked by the exposure of wrongdoing in organizations and places as varied as the Olympics and Wall Street, ended with a celebration of whistleblowing.
There is no denying that malfeasance and poor judgment were in abundant supply in 2002. Cardinal Law's resignation followed evidence of cover-ups and payouts in a multitude of abuse cases. Arthur Andersen, one of the Big Five accounting firms, suffered an equally punishing fate when it was revealed that its auditors were complicit in the misdeeds of Enron executives. John Rigas was forced to step down as chairman of Adelphia when it was shown that his family had benefited from more than $2.5 billion in off-the-balance-sheet transactions. Even cultural icon Martha Stewart was tarnished by allegations of insider trading on the stock market.
The legitimacy of our indignation notwithstanding, we must resist the temptation to elevate whistleblowing to the highest form of civic leadership. Whistleblowing unleashes anger, a dangerous passion, especially when citizens instinctively identify persons like Cardinal Law with the institutions they lead. The results can be devastating. The Catholic Church, the FBI, corporate America and the Olympics have all paid a heavy price for the sins of individual actors.
All this is not to say that whistleblowers like Misses Cooper, Rowley and Watkins do not deserve our thanks the country certainly is better off for their actions. The point is that whistleblowing carries costs for institutions and societies that are not insignificant. While whistleblowing admittedly can have beneficial effects, the work of the whistleblower can easily unleash cynicism, disillusionment and alienation and, thus, contribute to undermining trust and even law-abidingness.
The destructiveness of righteous indignation should not be underestimated. Already lawsuits have been filed against the Catholic Church under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) statute, the purpose of which is to disrupt criminal associations by subjecting them to multiple damages for their illicit activities. As anger can lead to a blurring of the difference between the Catholic Church and the Mafia, it also can easily lead to calls for counterproductive corporate regulations that could weaken the competitiveness of American companies in the new global economic order.
One particular of Time's encomium to the three women was somewhat overblown, if not misleading. There was nothing distinctively "American" about their willingness to take a stand against wrongdoing in high places. Anger at such behavior is by no means restricted to Americans. It is natural that human beings should get mad at individuals who abuse the trust placed in them for their own comfort or advantage. It takes courage to act on the sense of violated trust, but again that courage is not unique to Americans. It can be found in many if not all societies.
What can be said for Time's editors is that they drew attention to something very important about the American political system: that the commitment to the rule of law and an independent judiciary allows persons with knowledge of wrongdoing to step forward with some confidence of their personal safety as well as an expectation that their actions will have a beneficial effect.
The connection between whistleblowing and the rule of law points to a kind of leadership that is even more important than that represented by Time's honorees. If there is a peculiar American genius, it is in the creation and preservation of enduring institutions of democratic self-government, along with institutions of economic progress such as the corporation. Founders such as James Madison understood that if democracy was to work, it had to be institutionalized in the form of federalism, separation of powers, and checks and balances.
Taking human beings as they are, not as we might wish them to be, the fundamental problem of democratic self-government is to create a government strong enough to control the governed while having the capacity to control itself. America's political institutions are designed to accomplish both purposes. They rationalize the people's opinions by filtering, aggregating and elevating them. They give government officials the distance they need from the people in order to rule effectively. At the same time, they set ambition to check ambition, both to limit government to its proper functions and to facilitate competence in government.
As an exercise in political leadership, preserving good institutions is no less significant and may be tougher than the creation of them in the first place. Abraham Lincoln certainly believed that the work of preservation was tougher than the act of creation. The important point is that the creation and preservation of good institutions is critical to the well-being of any society. Those who labor in these fields (e.g., the Madisons and Lincolns) are the real heroes of the American republic.
In this connection, the preservation and revitalization of important institutions deserves the undivided attention of the American people. Reinvigorating the major political parties, for example, should be front and center in any debate over campaign finance reform.
Similarly, the Bush administration should be commended for highlighting the prerogatives of the executive department in the debate over the president's authority to control the personnel practices of the Homeland Security Office.
Nor should President Bush and Vice President Richard Cheney be faulted for placing a defense of the institution of the presidency at the center of the administration's objection to giving in to the General Accounting Office's request for documents related to energy policy meetings chaired by Mr. Cheney.
Admittedly, no thoughtful student of American politics would argue that appeals to institutional integrity should automatically prevail. At the same time, proper attention must be given to the maintenance and defense of the institutions that are critical to the health and prosperity of the country. The institutions that have produced many golden eggs for Americans may be more fragile than we wish to believe.
It is easy to feel frustrated by the size and remoteness of economic and political institutions, and to get angry at the people who misuse or hide behind them. It is more difficult, and more important, to remember the immense benefits that come from those institutions, including ordered freedom, decent democracy, and unparalleled prosperity.
Affirmative acts of preservation can make us feel good about ourselves and, thereby, promote hopefulness, trust and law-abidingness, that is, impulses that lend vitality and strength to a society. Come December of this year, the editors of Time would do the country a service by conferring "Person of the Year" honors on a champion of institutions.

Roger Barrus is Elliott Professor of Political Science and David Marion is director of the Wilson Center for Leadership in the Public Interest at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia.


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