Corruption is pervasive, diverse and present in almost all areas of society. From the “greed is good” heyday of the 1980s that encompassed the rise and fall of corporate high-flyers such as Christopher Skase, right through to the 2000s and the spectacular collapses of Enron and WorldCom in the US and HIH in Australia, the News of the World phone-hacking scandal, corruption seems to continue unabated.
The new year, filled as usual with good will and hope, proved no different. We are only half-way through February (not even the longest or cruellest month) and already we are confronted with the ICAC Investigation of alleged corruption in the financial and political affairs of Eddie Obeid, the ongoing saga of Craig Thomson, including criminal and civil charges, and now the staggering news of tsunami proportions: that the social compass of the nation, the holy grail of what’s good, decent and noble beyond the murkiness and double-dealings and back-stabbings of politics is also allegedly corrupt to the core.
According to the Australian Crime Commission’s ongoing investigation, sports corruption across all codes is rife with extensive links to organised crime and match-fixing. Who would have believed it? Yet we should not be surprised.
Plato the venerable philosopher anticipated corruption more than 2500 years ago. He foresaw what happens when power, deception, secrecy and concealment and the abuse of trust converge.
In the Republic, Glaucon asks Socrates who could be expected to behave justly if presented with the power to become invisible and do whatever one liked without fear of detection and punishment. The Myth of Gyges in Book 2 of Plato’s Republic is about corruption: a condition of total deception by which the unjust make themselves appear just and proper.
Plato labels this the “perfect injustice” appearing just when one is not. Gyges, a simple shepherd used a magical ring that rendered him invisible to take the place of a king. He used its power to gain authority, a position of trust, and to commit crimes under a cloak of invisibility that served his interest rather than the common good; all the while maintaining an outward pretence of justice and propriety. He did this with total impunity.
It is not inconceivable that if Gyges lived in Australia today, he might have also been awarded the Order of Australia for services to the public and the common good. Plato was not short on irony.
The financial and human costs of corruption have been and are enormous. Billions, if not trillions of dollars have been lost to both corporations and shareholders—in the case of Enron, employees who had invested most of their life savings in that company lost everything.
Reputations have been destroyed, lives turned upside down, and a number of heads of corporations and institutions have been imprisoned. Political corruption in the Watergate case forced President Nixon to resign. The social cost is incalculable: the loss of trust, which is essential for social cohesion and our democratic way of life.
And this brings us back to Plato. His Myth of Gyges clearly demonstrates how things can come apart and go terribly wrong for a society that allows conditions of perfect injustice to fester: an unwholesome collusion of power that involves the lack of accountability, the abuse of public trust, and an exclusive motive for self-gain that overrides the motive for the public good, all perpetrated in secrecy and under the pretence of “public propriety”.
Fortunately for us good journalism still exists to ferret out and expose corruption. Acting like a Platonic “guardian”, the Guardian brought the News of the World affair to light. Fairfax publications such as The Sydney Morning Herald and the Australian Financial Review, as well as News Limited’s The Australian, have also in recent days been providing in depth coverage and analysis of the ICAC Obeid investigation.
In an age where information has become a valuable marketable commodity we need good, vigilant and ethical journalism more than ever. We also need the inculcation of an ethical culture within all the estates of democracy—the government, the media, the police, the church and sport.
The moral of Plato’s Myth of Gyges is that ultimately behaving badly is bad for everyone, including one’s own self-interest. Being good is its own reward precisely because it pays to think and act ethically. Honest people may not have money to burn but neither do they get burned by greed for money and power.
Edward Spence is a Senior Research Fellow at the ARC Special Research Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at Charles Sturt University, Australia.
This article was originally published on TheConversation.edu.au.