Law and Naïveté

In a speech last week, President Bush responded to the corporate scandals by saying, "There is no capitalism without conscience; there is no wealth without character." The Washington Post fired back that conscience, basically, has nothing to do with it. Challenging Bush, the Post wrote, "There's no harm in this rhetoric, but it is naïve to suppose that business can be regulated by some kind of national honor code." Don't we ever learn? When I was in the White House serving President Nixon, I knew what the law was. I was trained in it. There were plenty of laws on the books forbidding precisely the kind of abuses that we rationalized ourselves into in the Nixon White House. By the time I sat down and thought about it and realized we were backing ourselves into a serious conspiracy that could topple a president, it was too late. I warned the President, but to no avail. No amount of additional laws or regulations would have stopped Watergate. It happened because people cut corners, did what they thought was necessary for the president to survive, and covered their own misdeeds rather than expose themselves and their colleagues. All the time we were rationalizing that what we were doing was in the interest of the country. Is anyone so naïve to think that more laws would have changed this? But, of course, in the wake of Watergate came the same hue and cry we're hearing in Congress today: Toughen up; crack down; send people to jail. So we enacted an array of new campaign finance laws; the Church hearings reformed the intelligence apparatus so a president could not abuse his power by misusing agencies; and criminal statutes were toughened up. Did we, therefore, usher in a period of "good government" and no more scandals? Ha! We had Iran Contra in the Reagan years, and then we had the Clinton scandals that resulted in the impeachment of a president in the nineties. And now in this Congress we've thrown out all the Watergate-era reforms and rewritten campaign finance laws because we discovered that they did not work -- and, in fact, the problem had become worse. What fools we are when we think we can legislate away the immorality of human beings. I stand as living proof that the cure comes, not from laws and statutes, but the transforming of the human heart -- the embracing of a moral code to which people, by their consciences, bind themselves. As Samuel Johnson famously wrote, "How small of all that human hearts endure/That part which laws or kings can cause or cure!" If we follow the counsel of The Washington Post and others, we will miss the great lesson of this scandal -- and the scandals that have gone before it. We will pass a whole series of laws, many of which, as my experience in Watergate demonstrates, will later be repealed as ineffective. We will buy ourselves a deterrent for maybe the next decade -- that is, until the next wave of scandal hits. The alternative is to take a bracing dose of reality, to recognize that the enemy is moral relativism and moral confusion, to embrace once again a solid code by which conscience can be informed, and then go about the business of strengthening the conscience of the nation. The president is right. Without conscience, capitalism fails. And to believe otherwise -- that's utterly naïve.
For further reading: "President Announces Tough New Enforcement Initiatives," Remarks by the President on Corporate Responsibility, Regent Wall Street Hotel, New York, New York, 9 July 2002. "A New Ethic of Corporate Responsibility," White House press release, 9 July 2002. Read the text of President Bush's executive order establishing the Corporate Fraud Task Force. "Capitalism and Conscience," editorial, The Washington Post, 10 July 2002, A16. "A Time to Learn about Ethics," Chuck Colson, remarks before Harvard Business School on developing a personal code of ethics. J. Budziszewski, Steering Through Chaos: Vice and Virtue in an Age of Moral Confusion (Navpress, 2000).


Chuck Colson



  • Facebook Icon in Gold
  • Twitter Icon in Gold
  • LinkedIn Icon in Gold

Sign up for the Daily Commentary