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In September 2022, Las Vegas Review-Journal investigative reporter Jeff German was murdered while in the midst of an investigation of Clark County Public Administrator Robert Telles. Telles, whose elected position was one of significant power and authority, has been charged with the murder of German. In the aftermath of German’s death, details of Telles’s corruption and abusive behavior—both in and out of the workplace—surfaced, revealing how far he was willing to go to maintain his power.1

Between harassment, threats, retaliation, financial schemes, and more, Telles’s record of corruption spans over a decade in which he repeatedly abused his positions to enrich and advance himself. Many people were aware of his unethical behavior but were unable or unwilling to intervene, which speaks to deeper, more systemic issues. Stories like this infuriate us because we entrust our public leaders with the responsibilities of public service. Furthermore, such unaccountability erodes the trust that is necessary for governments to function and for communities to flourish.

A suspicion of government is deeply embedded in the American character, serving as, among other things, a bulwark against the potential excesses of those who may abuse their political power. This implicit distrust lends itself to a spirit of unruliness, by which I mean an unwillingness to be ruled by authorities we deem illegitimate. We can trace our unruly roots back to the Puritan settlers who fled religious and political persecution in England to establish their own self-governing communities in America. As Ted McAllister and Bruce Frohnen explain in Character in the American Experience: An Unruly People, when the English Puritans were “forbidden to enter most professions and told what and to whom they could sell, where and when they could travel, and where and how they could worship, dissenters refused to give up their faith or their way of life.”2

From our founding, Americans have been a distinctly unruly people who object to illegitimate claims of authority and unjustified exertions of power. It follows that those who betray the public’s trust are held accountable, which requires a commitment among citizens to assert our sovereignty. Yet, we often fail to show that we truly value accountability, meaning we don’t respond to the absence—or presence—of accountability in ways that will encourage it. From aggressively shouting at public officials over policy disagreements to showing complete disinterest in local politics, our actions sometimes indicate that we expect too much or too little of those serving in government. We either demand perfection or dismiss corruption as “the way things are,” but neither extreme is conducive to promoting accountability. So, what should we be doing instead?

A good starting point is to identify the reasonable expectations we should have of public servants. We should expect honesty, transparency, responsibility, prudence, and other virtues that reflect good character. These expectations are tied to the roles and responsibilities of public service. First and foremost, public servants are obligated to prioritize the common good over their personal interests. Refusal to do so should be understood as disqualification from public service—plain and simple. It’s also important for public servants to recognize their residents principally as people, not customers or clients or some other generic label. Holding other public servants accountable is also crucial, as corruption is too often tacitly sanctioned by those who are capable of preventing it.

All of that said, we must also understand that those who serve in government—whether elected or hired—are human, which means that they will make mistakes. When this happens, we expect accountability while also recognizing the opportunity for improvement moving forward. In this regard, a good member of the community is much like a good parent, coach, or boss: tough, but fair. As James Madison famously wrote in Federalist 51, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”3 As community members, we can have high expectations while also encouraging well-intentioned public servants doing their best to navigate the challenges inherent to public service.

The general public also has roles and responsibilities, the abdication of which allows corruption—and, in more extreme cases, tyranny—to go unchecked. Our responsibilities as members of a community emanate from our very nature as humans. We are, as Aristotle recognized, political animals, meaning that we naturally belong to families, neighborhoods, and cultures, which are essential to the formation of our character. As Carl Trueman notes in The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, the political man “finds his identity in the activities in which he engages in the public life of the polis.4

The private man, by contrast, directs his energy inward to attend solely to his own interests, neglecting his obligations to the community. The temptation to withdraw from public (political) life is particularly strong in an era characterized by the isolating forces of atomized individualism and technological advancement, but it comes with significant costs.

As individuals recede from the public sphere and into their personal lives, the “middle institutions” of civil society are inevitably weakened. These institutions, which include churches, book clubs, sports leagues, historical societies, conservation groups, and other associations, exist between individuals and governments as the life force of community. Edmund Burke described these “little platoons” as the source of our public affections, as they distinguish our community as ours. This is our church, our book club, our community and so on. These organizations, which tend to be very active in local politics, are indispensable in promoting the interests of their members and ensuring that public servants remain accountable. Beyond that, they allow us to properly orient ourselves as belonging to a “political community,” to borrow another term from Aristotle.

By being engaged in our communities and involved in the activities of public life, we develop the habits and virtues necessary for self-government. In practice, this means that we are not only informed about the actions of their government—and other matters relevant to the community—but invested in them insofar as they promote the common good. Investment of this sort is a constitutive element of attachment, which may be the ultimate hallmark of citizenship. In his seminal work, Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville observes that “the inhabitant of New England is attached to his township not so much because he was born there as because he sees in that township a free and strong corporation that he is a part of and that is worth his trouble to seek to direct.”5

Tocqueville adds that through this active participation in self-government, the resident of the township “assembles clear and practical ideas on the nature of his duties as well as the extent of his rights.” 6 Residents who are invested in their community do not allow their local leaders to abuse their authority—they demand and enforce accountability because doing so is imperative to preserve the integrity of our representative governments.

Public servants and their residents have distinct yet closely related responsibilities in ensuring that governments are accountable, responsive, and advancing the common good. Understanding these obligations is a prerequisite for creating the conditions necessary for accountability.

If the field of behavioral economics has taught us anything, it’s that incentives play a major role in human behavior from infancy through adulthood. Our political institutions too often reward self-serving individuals whose misguided ambition leads them astray to the detriment of those they serve. On the flip side, public servants who demonstrate the virtues of public service are not always recognized and rewarded as they should be. Aligning incentives with the kind of character we want and need in government is crucial. Unsurprisingly, residents and public servants both have a role to play in reshaping our incentive structures. We can do so by being both mindful and prudent in who we elect, hire, promote, demote, criticize, praise, punish, and reward. If we want justice, we must first be capable of exercising good judgement.

Ensuring accountability in government, developing meaningful attachments through civil society, and investing in the success of the community: these are the actions of people committed to self-government. The same applies to public servants, who have the privilege to serve the community in which they live. We have no business complaining about corruption, abuses of power, and other political vices if we are unwilling to engage in the hard work that citizenship entails. As McAllister and Frohnen note, “To be free, a people must demand, protect, and above all exercise self-government.”7 Whether we do so or not, the choice is ours.

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MICHAEL HULING is a city planner for Clark County, Nevada, and an advisory councilmember at the Davenport Institute for Public Engagement and Civic Leadership.

 

 

 

Endnotes and Resources

1 https://www.reviewjournal.com/investigations/a-reporters-killing-revealed-a-decade-of-robert-telles-toxic-behavior-2679171/

2 Frohnen, Bruce, and Ted V. McAllister. Character in the American Experience: An Unruly People. Lexington Books, 2022.

3 https://billofrightsinstitute.org/primary-sources/federalist-no-51

4 Trueman, Carl R. The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution. Crossway, 2020.

5 Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America. Translated by Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop, University of Chicago Press, 2000.

6 Tocqueville.

7 Frohnen and McAllister.

 

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