Conflicts of interest: why we fight

The current attention to President Trump’s using his official position to bring business to his properties – discussed here – has drawn national (and even global) focus on the area of conflicts of interest. It is thus an opportune time for the COI Blog to review some basic principles.

First, as Justice Louis Brandeis famously said: “Our government is the potent, the omnipresent teacher. For good or for ill, it teaches the whole people by its example.” While Brandeis was speaking about violations of law the point seems just as applicable to ethics.

Second, and as one would expect, the impact of COIs can go beyond the economic value of the transaction at issue. How much does it matter that organizations, individuals and governments pay close attention to identifying and mitigating conflicts of interest? One way to answer this question is to consider – as I used to ask students in my business school ethics class to do – what the world would look like without such focus and sensitivity. Below are some of the observations that I have heard from them over the years:

– Individuals might be reluctant to take the medicines that their doctors recommend for fear that those recommendations are motivated more by the doctors’ financial relationships with pharma companies than by the patients’ well-being.

– Individuals and organizations might not use financial advisors for fear that the advice they receive is driven by hidden, adverse interests – and would instead devote otherwise productive time to trying to become their own financial experts, resulting in a significant misallocation of capital as well as time.

– Organizations could hesitate to take a wide range of everyday actions for which they need to trust their employees and agents to do what’s right by the organizations – or would proceed only with highly intrusive and costly surveillance-like measures in place.

In short, Conflict of Interest World is a place of needlessly diminished lives, resources and opportunities.

Finally, and returning to the issue of Trump’s COIs, the negative impact of presidential impunity regarding COIs is particularly worrisome in a way that is unique in our history.  In the coming years we will be compelled to make sacrifices to address increasingly urgent needs regarding climate change and public debt. If government’s motives on these and other critical issues are subject to question due to COI’s then the (already small, in my view) likelihood of sufficient sacrifice being made is further diminished, with potentially catastrophic consequences for our country and planet. (For more on the link between morality-based sacrifice and the success of human societies see Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind.)

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