Conflict of Interest: An Obsolete Concept?

Provisional thesis: “conflict of interest” is an old-fashioned concept, belonging (to borrow from Eric Blair) to the days of hansom cabs.

In 2003, the OED online allowed, in draft form, the phrase into the hallowed tome:

conflict of interest n. (a) an incompatibility between the concerns or aims of different parties; (b) (chiefly in Business, Polit., and Law) a situation whereby two or more of the interests held by, or entrusted to, a single person or party are considered incompatible or breach prescribed practice; spec. a situation in which an individual may profit personally from decisions made in his or her official capacity.

1837 Southern Lit. Messenger Dec. 752/1 My own convictions are that our system of Federal Government, with virtue on the part of the rulers, and vigilance on the part of the people, may exist forever. Under a fair administration of its powers, no conflict of interest or feeling can well arise.

So there’s a definition, and there is possibly the earliest appearance of the term in English in print.

I bolded “incompatibility” because what may seem like an incompatibility of interests to, let’s say, the citizenry is an almost ideal compatibility from insiders’ points of views.

Thus politicians become lobbyists who have excessive influence over current politicians. Many U.S. Reps, for example, are no lobbyists who have access to the back rooms of Congress. Other politicians leave office, join powerful boards or help run corporations, then go back into politics: conflict of interest to the second or third power. Cheney is one good example: from government to Haliburton plus other oil and energy interests, then back to government, where he used the cloak of Executive Privilege (as VP) to prevent people from getting a look at the gory details of the conflicts of interests.

But of course the pandemic of conflict of interest is spread by both major parties.

At a more microcosmic level, one routinely sees conflict of interest on city councils, county councils, utility boards, school boards, and academia.

Conflicts of interest seem almost impervious to laws and guidelines designed to prevent them, and personal senses of right and wrong now seem less likely to include a notion of the inappropriateness of conflicts of interest.

A concrete and devastating result of conflicts of interest is, I argue, the spill in the Gulf. Oil people in government, government people in oil: an oily business indeed. The U.S. government is relegated to a spectator as BP demonstrates it didn’t think to ask (or asked but laughed it off) a singularly practical question: “What if the pipe breaks down there?”


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