WHEN YOU'RE FOR IT, it's called "disclosure", when you're against it, "invasion of privacy." What would you call your own adventure in poking and prying last week? When you were reading all those dimly titillating accounts of Hamilton Jordan's modest holdings and Jody Powell's income and the rest, how did you feel about it? Was it disclosure or was it invasion of privacy or was it, in some unelevated sense, just a kind of naughty, guilty fun? Do you feel the republic is any safer or stronger because this material is available to all? Do you think that because we now have an Ethics in Government Act, crookedness in government is on the downturn?
All right - the questions are loaded; they presume fixed answers. But surely last week's posting of the intimate, if sometimes pitiful and often irrelevant, financial details of the lives of the mighty and near-mighty in government is worth reflecting on. Disclosure, as a technique for discouraging corruption in public affairs, has its virtues; among these is that it can preempt the need to take other steps that are much more meddlesome and destructive of the liberties and dignity of people serving in government. But such rules are undiscriminating, and unavoidably so. It would be farcical to ask officials to report only the stock holdings and debts that do cause problems. And so we tell them to tell all while in public life and more or less to forswear all on coming out of it.
But at some point that obligation becomes little more than a burden or an embarrassment to the affected officials - one that doesn't save the taxpayer a single cent or a single scandal and that may end up costing him the service of good officials who have had it.
Last week it seemed as though this point had been reached. The papers and the airwaves were full of tales of corruption and woe that had befallen the good old U.S. government in recent times: Lockheed, GSA, Minchew v. Talmadge; and names like John Dean and San Clemente were back in the news, evocative and nostalgic as ever, recalling a whole other range of scandals. How much of the elaborate new statutory and regulatory system that has been put in place as a kind of "never again" hedge against repetition of all those shortcuts, bribes, heists and general enrichments is really relevant and equal to the job? How much of it is just an imposing new layer of bureaucratic busywork that can strip an honest official of his privacy, and limit his future without doing much of anything to prevent unethical people from behaving unethically?
Although there has been plenty of grumbling about them, the case has not been made that these "ethics" strictures now coming into force are misguided and wholly useless as prospective crim-stoppers. But you could get the impression last week of parallel lines going merrily along in no danger of ever crossing: the line of compelling ever more lavish revelations of officials' unofficial business - and the line of corner-cutting and dissembling and occasional outright theft that has long been a feature of government-private sector relations. At a minimum the situation could use some inspection. Whn the moralists in Congress and the executive branch get through filling out all those forms and taking all those vows that the post-Watergate laws and rules they created require, they could do worse than to consider whether some of that stuff isn't worthless, falsely reassuring and, in its ultimate effect on government, bad.