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Legal vs. Ethical

10/02/08 7:55AM By Olin Robison
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(HOST) Like most of us, commentator Olin Robison has been thinking about politics, Wall Street and what lies ahead.

(ROBISON) It all came into focus for me when, a few days ago, I heard someone say, "Just because something is wrong doesn't mean that it is illegal."  That is, of course, absolutely right.

When ordinary folks like most of us listen to the alarmist talk on radio and television about the bailout; pardon, please; our President wants us to talk of it as a "rescue plan."  O.K., the rescue plan.  Anyway, most of us simply don't understand why it has happened.

I have been amazed at the groundswell of public indignation surrounding all of this.  The real reason the proposal failed in the House of Representatives is to be found in this public unhappiness.  It, the rescue plan, is widely perceived to violate most people's sense of what is fair.

No one, as far as I know, is accusing anyone of doing anything illegal.  On the other hand, there is widespread indignation and a strong public sense that the Wall Street crowd ought to have to play by the same rules as everyone else.  In other words, why should the rest of us have to pay for their greed and bad judgment?  And most people clearly believe that is what lies behind the current situation.

Now, dear friends, greed may be a sin, but it isn't illegal.  Members of Congress feared that they might well be voted out of office if they voted FOR the bailout.  That really is what this is all about.

The first rule of politics is to get elected.  The second rule is to get re-elected.  The third rule (closely related to the first two) is never to take a public position which is likely to cost more votes than it gets.

So, we're watching a grand public drama that is governed not by what is legal or illegal but by what is publicly perceived to be fair and ethical.

It is also noteworthy that the public reaction is indifferent to the other issues that divide people in this country.  The public demand for ethical behavior is neither conservative nor liberal, neither Republican nor Democratic, neither Protestant nor Catholic, nor Jewish or anything else.  It comes from absolutely everywhere, and woe be to the politician who doesn't understand that.

The public demand for "fair is fair" is not going to go away.  Nor, in my opinion, should it.  And those who got us into this mess would do well to celebrate this wonderful quality as we go forward.  And we will go forward.
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