Day 18: Ethical vs. Legal

Back when he was in college, soon-to-be Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg famously wrote:

You can be unethical and still be legal that’s the way i live my life

Mark Zuckerberg, in an instant message sent to a friend

We’ve seen what Facebook has become, and know now that he really meant it. And it’s just not him; many people feel that as long as there’s no law against it, it’s fine to do. Or even if there’s a way of interpreting an existing law that exempts the particular thing they want to do, it’s OK.

Ideally, laws and regulations exist to codify a society’s sense of what is ethical. When I was growing up, it was perfectly legal for anyone to dump anything into any body of water. And it wasn’t just big factories that were doing this. When I walked to school I crossed the Hackensack River, and just upstream was a car wash. I remember always seeing foamy bubbles floating on the river as I passed. It was not uncommon to see big rainbow-colored oil slicks, too.

The environmental movement of the ’60s led to laws against this and many other types of pollution. These laws represented the sense of people that it was not ethical to pollute, ruining things so that a company can save a few dollars. Fast forward to today to find many of these environmental regulations being loosened or removed, just so the big political donors can make a few more dollars.

Back in the 1920s, there was rampant financial speculation, making a few people rich, but destabilizing the overall financial system. The collapse of that system led to the Great Depression. At that time new laws were enacted to make those shady financial practices illegal. One such law, the Glass-Steagall Act, forced the separation of commercial banks, which regular people and businesses relied upon, and investment banks, which were in the business of underwriting all types of securities. That separation worked well for nearly 70 years.

But then in the 1990s, banks began to clamor for the removal of these restrictions. There was just too much money to be made! So in 1999, Democratic President Bill Clinton signed into law the Gramm‐​Leach‐​Bliley Act, which essentially repealed Glass-Steagal, and allowed for single corporations to be involved in all kinds of financial services. No longer prohibited from this type of financial intermingling, corporations merged with each other to create financial powerhouses – the so-called Too Big To Fail companies. The financial collapse and subsequent government bailout of these companies was the chief cause of the 2007–8 global financial crisis, and the Great Recession.

After that crisis some laws were enacted to address the shortcomings of the current system, but the lobbying by these companies has made it nearly impossible to enact laws as strict as those from the 1930s. So while the mixing of risky and secured securities is still legal, most people consider it unethical. After all, when those risks pay off, the corporation makes a lot of money. But when they fail, the government (that’s us) picks up the tab.

Another great example of a regulation that was vilified was the FCC Fairness Doctrine, which required that TV and radio stations to devote some of their air time to matters of public interest, and to enable different viewpoints to be heard. This requirement was removed by the Reagan Administration in 1987. Shortly after that, Fox News was born. They are probably the grossest example of what the Fairness Doctrine was designed to prevent: one-sided propaganda that is capable of ill-informing its viewers.

There are laws that govern what you can and cannot do with people seeking asylum at the border. The Trump administration didn’t like those laws, so he issued an executive order that made the image below legal. I’ll leave it up to you to decide if it is ethical to separate children from their parents and keep them in cages.

Immigrant kids seen held in fenced cages at border facility
Children held in cages, McAllen, TX 2018

And remember, Auschwitz and the other camps were also legal, but I can’t think of anything less ethical.

So when you hear politicians, especially conservatives, rail against “regulation”, what it really means is that they want to be able cheat and cut corners in order to make a fast buck. Of course, it isn’t difficult to cite some overzealous regulations that serve no purpose – no system of laws is perfect. But to extrapolate that to the conclusion that all regulations are bad is a clear sign that someone’s trying to get away with something.

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