The notion of integrity—being what you say you are—remained unwritten but implicit in a recent magazine column* entitled “Issue of the week: Too wealthy to pay taxes?” It seems presidential candidate Trump reported a loss of $916 million and thereby avoided paying federal income taxes, news that exposed a corruption within the U.S. tax code. According to The Week, polls show that nine of every ten Americans think it is their duty to pay their fair share of taxes. Apparently, about 83 percent of the total tax liability is paid on time every year, unlike the situation in Greece.
This sense of civic duty would be destroyed if we all thought it “smart,” as Trump said, to game the tax system. Our ideals of governance, our social morale, would collapse if we all felt the government penalized us as stupid for paying while the “smart” wealthy were spared. Yet, that’s what’s going on. And sure enough, morale is going down. Witness the polarization, in which each side expresses its own disgust of the government.
Integrity is making your actions conform to your spoken, written or implied word. It means doing what you promised, repairing the damage if your error caused someone else pain. Society is a complex system: millions of people interacting by the myriad written and unwritten rules that govern traffic and taxes, toothpaste and tableware, meeting and greeting. And every other kind of exchange and interchange.
Can a complex system—particularly a society—have integrity?
Yes, if the society actually does what it says.
Doing what is said (or written) means obeying—and enforcing—the speed limit. It means equal opportunity when we say “all men are created equal … .” When we say “promote the general Welfare.” it means effective, enforced, obeyed regulations from environment to banking to pure foods. A society can have integrity to the extent it lives by its spoken and written words of governance and social interaction. Unfortunately, “integrity” does not necessarily mean “fair” or “nice.” Stable societies can exist with rules that forbid women’s voting or courts that give corporations the rights of people—if that’s the written word and the common expectation. Conversely, the absence of integrity generates social breakdown, what we sometimes describe as a “third-world” life ruled by gangs or oligarchs.
I repeat: the strength of a society is not determined either by its reality or by its ideals, but the weakness of a society is determined by the size of the gap between the two. If your ideals—your spoken rules of behavior and values—are not embedded in your behavior, your society is in danger of disintegrating. Disintegration is polarization into two or more factions that disregard the rules. Disintegrated societies can be made orderly only when ruled by a strong man (or woman). Governance by bully. Example: the Middle East. Remove the bully and the disintegration becomes evident. Think Iraq.
We should not tolerate the gaps between our practices and our written ideals—whether in tax, immigration, opportunity, individual rights, or maintenance of the shared environment—all the things that form the metaphorical common meadow on which each of us grazes his cows.**
Politicians play safe by offering small band-aid-sized fixes for broken-leg-sized problems, avoiding discussion of the gaps between real and ideal. If you don’t talk about it, you are powerless to change it. Make leaders address methods to reduce the gaps. The politician who glorifies the ideals without recognizing the missing integrity is just blowing wind from a bully pulpit.
* The Week magazine, October 21, 2016, p. 34.
** See Garrett Hardin, “Tragedy of the Commons,” Science 162, 1243-1248 (1968).