Lack of accountability has devastating ripple effect

Thu, May 24, 2012, 01:00

While forgiveness can be a positive quality, it appears to be a poor foundation for a political system, writes JOE HUMPHREYS

IT’S A well-known fact that Ireland doesn’t do accountability but there are different theories as to why. Some say it’s because social networks are too small; others say it’s down to our Jesuitical mindset – we see the grey in everything.

Clearly the Catholic Church has a case to answer. All those formative years of Confession, “three Hail Marys” and being told endlessly that I’m a sinner (which I am, by the way) have no doubt acted as a brake on my own will to condemn.

In public debate, Christian sentiment waters down our appetite for justice. At the critical moment, under-pressure public figures will reach for the argument: “Let he who is without sin . . .” (John 8:7); “There but for the grace of God . . .” (martyred Protestant John Bradford, c1550); or even “It’s very difficult for a rolled head to learn anything” (RTÉ, 2011).

Forgiveness may be healthy. It can set you free from a prison of anger. On a societal level, it can help warring factions to overcome a political logjam, as illustrated for instance in the case of the Troubles (an experience that may also have deeply influenced our attitudes to accountability). But forgiveness – and, as a fan of Jesus, it hurts me to say it – appears to be a poor foundation for a political system.

Just why is apparent from an increasing body of research in social and economic sciences. For many years psychologists have highlighted how informal rules of reciprocity build trust in communities, and also how this can be quickly eroded by the presence of “free riders” in our midst.

But now, it seems, the mere perception of freeloaders, untouchables, disgraced officials with gold-plated pensions, call them what you will, has a deadly impact on social cohesion.

“Perceived norms are a powerful thing,” as Timothy D Wilson points out in his book Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change. One study he cites, which has particular resonance in the context of the household charge, links public perception of lawlessness with disrespect for the law. Researchers in the Netherlands tested people’s honesty by putting a €5 note in a transparent envelope halfway through a postbox. When there were no “priming” signs of lawlessness, only 13 per cent of the passersby gave in to temptation and pocketed the envelope. But when the researchers painted graffiti on the postbox and scattered litter on the ground, this percentage doubled.

“People are highly sensitive to social norms [information about what other people are doing and what they approve of], and subtle indicators of these norms can have dramatic effects on people’s behaviour,” Wilson writes. “When there are signs that lawlessness is the norm, people are more likely to act lawlessly.”

Accountability is important, though, not just to ensure citizens have a sense they are all rowing in the same direction. More importantly perhaps, it protects us from our own worst selves.

Economists such as Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan, who is widely credited with predicting the 2008 economic crash, depicts recklessness as a temptation to which everyone – citizens, corporations and governments alike – is susceptible.

In a recent article How to Prevent Other Financial Crises (Johns Hopkins University Press), he says the “best risk management rule” was formulated in ancient Babylonia: “If a builder builds a house for a man and does not make its construction firm, and the house which he has built collapses and causes the death of the owner of the house, that builder shall be put to death.”

Thankfully, for those in the construction industry at least, the criminal justice system has changed a bit in 4,000 years. But the means of safeguarding society from human avarice or stupidity hasn’t.

Taleb writes: “. . . instead of relying on thousands of meandering pages of regulation, we should enforce a basic principle of ‘skin in the game’ when it comes to financial oversight: ‘The captain goes down with the ship; every captain and every ship.’

“In other words, nobody should be in a position to have the upside without sharing the downside, particularly when others may be harmed. While this principle seems simple, we have moved away from it in the finance world, particularly when it comes to financial organisations that have been deemed too big to fail.”

Being Irish, it’s hard not to think about accountability without equating it to some form of revenge. But, viewed from the standpoint of people like Wilson and Taleb, accountability is less about judgmentalism and more about physics.

Unless wrongdoers are held to account, the shock waves from their actions will continue, causing untold damage in their wake.

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