In jurisprudence, there is a principle called "presumption of regularity." That is, the government is assumed to be acting lawfully and fulfilling its obligations in the absence of evidence to the contrary.
"Presumption of regularity" has been taking a terrible beating, most recently in a congressionally mandated study of the American reconstruction effort in Iraq. A draft of the report, obtained by The New York Times, found that with costs totaling close to $50 billion and counting, the United States had failed to rebuild Iraq and modernize its infrastructure. It said: "The overuse of cost-plus contracts, inordinately high ... fees, unacceptable ... delays and constant personnel turnover contributed to a massive waste of taxpayer dollars."
The case of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich belies the whole idea of regularity in government. His own taped conversations seem to reveal a character who regarded high office as a trading post with prices for jobs and other favors. Barack Obama's Senate seat was apparently worth at least $500,000. The price for head of the Illinois Lottery was apparently set at $25,000. What is shocking about this was how routine Blagojevich made it seem.
The culture of corruption extends beyond government to what we call the private sector. Money manager Bernard Madoff apparently had no compunction about defrauding anyone, from friends to worthy Jewish charities. Madoff, like the Enron Corp., has become an icon for selling out the trusting for purposes of self-aggrandizement.
I am unhappily reminded of my time in the Soviet Union, where bribery and other corruption were so commonplace as to be accepted as a dismal fact of life. Health care was nominally free, but it took a bribe to see a doctor.
America isn't there yet, but it badly needs some regulatory policing of the Enrons and Madoffs. For President-elect Barack Obama, perhaps the greatest challenge he faces is restoring confidence, not only in government but in each other. We need to be able to rely once again on a presumption of regularity.