Should the fight against conflicts of interest be treated as a national priority?

President Biden recently received well-deserved attention for declaring the fight against foreign corruption to be a national security priority. Should conflicts of interest be viewed  in the same manner?

In particular, 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.

In “Conflict of Interest World,”

– 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.

Bottom line: a short visit to this unhappy imaginary world – a place of “all against all” – is a reminder of the vital role that sufficient attention to COIs play in our very real world. To my mind, this well deserves to be seen as a national priority.


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