Impeaching dishonesty

is the subject of my Trade Tripper column in this Friday-Saturday issue of BusinessWorld:

At the least, the impeachment trial highlighted a disconcerting trend in Philippine society: our tolerance with dishonesty. Such is exemplified in two instances: the first had to do with the Supreme Court’s clerk of court refusing to bring out the disputed SALN’s by saying she didn’t bring them along to the Senate (when she actually did) and the second had to do with members of the House prosecution team denying that they publicly claimed CJ Justice Renato Corona has "45 properties" despite the fact that video clips and numerous witnesses saw them clearly doing so.

Doubtless, the court clerk and the House prosecutors have reasons for making the statements that they did. But such is beside the point. And frankly irrelevant. If one’s word can’t be taken at face value, society loses a basic component necessary for its proper functioning and that is "trust." It must be noted, though, that this behavior of placing minimal value in honesty cuts across social or political classes. Household helpers have no qualms declaring commitment to the houses they are serving but all the while knowing they will abandon that household that very evening. I know of faculty professors, even priests, who think it their God-given right to back out of commitments already made simply because something more favorable to them came up. One COO of a multinational firm thinks nothing of cravenly taking credit for revenues generated by his partner. Of course, we also know of that famous "promise" made by a president not to run again. Although in fairness, equally despicable (actually traitorous) were her Cabinet officials who declared (even sang) their commitment to her administration while simultaneously plotting her downfall.

The problem with all this dishonesty stems from our toleration of the same. It’s hard to pinpoint where or how or when this type of behavior steeped into our society. However, what is clear is that this must be stopped. As law professor Tamar Frankel (author of the book Trust and Honesty: America’s Business Culture at a Crossroad; Oxford University Press) says, if people "expect dishonesty, they might accept and even justify it. This expectation is dangerous. People may protect themselves from fraud by suspecting everyone they do not know well. They may cease to interact with others or start copying dishonest people who seem to be successful. The price of both reactions is devastating to our economy and well-being."

The foregoing point regarding the economic costs of dishonesty, as well as the benefits of truth telling, were amply corroborated by Rick Hayes-Roth in his research paper "The Value of Truth Telling" (2011), which pointed out:

"Several scholars have suggested that honesty, honor, fairness and other traditional values play a vital role in making capitalism and democracy function (Fukuyama 1995; Zak 2008). Others have recognized that capitalism and democracy reward greed and reinforce antisocial manipulators (Hayes-Roth 2011a). Some believe that enterprises can reconstruct themselves profitably around the principles of integrity and honoring one’s word (Jensen 2011). Our research complements their work by showing how lies materially harm business prospects, making it possible to increase value through truth telling. In the Internet Age, both harmful and salutary information flow at increasing rates, amplifying the latent value of truth (Hayes-Roth 2011c). Promiscuous customers have little loyalty to vendors and shun untrustworthy ones as too risky. The Internet will soon offer improved mechanisms to identify liars and truth-tellers and to filter out untrustworthy messages automatically. Businesses and other organizations will need to seize the opportunities to significantly improve their truthfulness quotients. Quantitative measurements of the value of truth telling will help management steer in a positive direction."

As Hayes-Roth bluntly concludes, "democracy and modern civilization might be at risk if citizens either give up on knowing what’s true or can’t easily separate credible information from propaganda and other types of misinformation."

As usual, the job of ensuring society stays honest lies with each and every citizen. As professor Frankel says: "The first step is to be aware of the change. The second is to recognize the harm of this change and the danger that it will become our permanent culture. The third is trying to restore the balance between morality and law and the justice of the market. The most important part is enforcement: not the police and not even the leadership can make the change. It is each and every one of us that must make it and demand it of each other. Keep the ‘realistic cynics’ away and isolated. Do not allow them to contaminate us."

So, while a Freedom of Information law may be important, more necessary, as professor Frankel insightfully says, is for people to reject "as symbols of success" any "con artists and charlatans," both of which we have a lot of nowadays.

We have to start realizing our words are who we are. If our words mean nothing, it’s likely because we think of ourselves the same.