(Next Magazine, 2015/11/19, A002, Second Opinion, Bill Stacey)
Government intervention corrupts
AS our former Chief Executive Donald Tsang stood trial for misconduct while in office, Legco rejected last week an attempt to extend anticorruption law to cover the head of government. By focusing primarily on taking pecuniary benefits, this narrow view of corruption overlooks how our freedom is increasingly being corroded by a Machiavellian belief that nothing is beyond the pale, as the end justifies the means.
Imagine a police officer, knowing who committed a heinous crime, but also knowing that he doesn’t have the evidence to convict. Add to the dilemma the fear that the same person might well offend again, hurting or claiming the life of another. What would he do? Is there not a temptation to fabricate just a little evidence? Or exaggerate claims before a judge when seeking a warrant?These temptations have been given a name – “noble cause corruption”. The idea that the noble end might justify means of dubious ethical validity. The temptation to cross ethical boundaries and where those boundaries lie is cleverly explored in Hong Kong police movie classics, like Infernal Affairs.The idea has broader application. Power of the state is not just vested in the police. Perceived noble causes are not just found in the criminal justice system. Officials, politicians and activists in many roles are driven, often apparently by the best of motives, to push too far to achieve what they see as noble causes.Assuming most people are essentially good in their motivations and knowing that the ICAC is on the case seeking out traditional corrupt practices, the problem of noble cause corruption could be even more prevalent than the garden variety pecuniary kind.
Some examples. Most people care about the aged, recognise that late in life not everyone has children to care for them or the means to support themselves. Looking after the aged is a classic “noble cause”, particularly in a society like Hong Kong where we honour our elders.Yet proposals for a “universal” scheme to provide a pension for the aged are inherently dishonest. The recent assertion by a group of academics that such a scheme can be fully funded is based on two deceits. Firstly, their numbers only add up by taking half of MPF contributions away from people to pay for a universal scheme. That is a tax increase by stealth. Secondly, it is not clear that even if “funded”, the universal schemes would provide sufficient money for people to get by.The denial that higher minimum wages or capping working hours have an impact on employment of low skilled people is another example of misguided good intentions. In almost no other sphere of discussion would it be argued that changing prices has no impact on demand. Denying employees the right to negotiate the wage arrangements that work for them reduces freedom to contract and employment prospects.
Workers without good Chinese language skills find it difficult to compete in the Hong Kong labour market. However, our union driven laws deny non-native speakers the ability to offer services at a lower price, perhaps the only ground on which they can compete. Minimum wages and labour market rules are discrimination hiding under the guise of a noble cause.Public spending, be it for a technology bureau, a very fast train, a passenger terminal or bridges spanning wide river deltas, offers similar temptations. We do not need to attribute corruption or ill motives to the advocates of these grand projects. However, the belief that these are right for the public or national interest leads to economic projections that are ludicrously optimistic, to aggressive use of procedures, to force implementation and corruption of our public life.We also see the abuse of the procedures of the Legco, both by those wanting to stall and those wanting to push through legislation. Legislative rules designed to ensure decorum are essential to the functioning of any parliament. Legislatures will inevitably contain different and passionately held views. If everyone believes that their noble end justifies any means the whole legislative process is corrupted.