I remember going to Rotary with my dad a time or two when I was in high school, even before the wimmenfolk were accepted as members. In the decades that have stacked up since, I’ve covered innumerable Rotary speakers and even been the speaker a few times.
At virtually every meeting, Rotarians recite “The Four-Way Test of the Things We Think, Say or Do,” but I keep my mouth shut. I’m fine with the first two — Is it the truth? Is it fair to all concerned? — because those are my personal and professional goals at all times. But the parts about building goodwill and friendship and being beneficial to all concerned — well, the things I’m paid to think, say and do don’t always pass those tests.
This is an Opinion
Instead, I have a one-way test that helps me out when I face ethical questions. It goes like this: Would it be OK if everyone did this?
My test is easy to apply to all manner of situations: Would it be OK if everyone tipped as generously as I do? Would it be OK if everyone fiddled with their cellphones in meetings as much as I do? Would it be OK if everyone obeyed traffic lights the way I do? Would it be OK if everyone were as cavalier about RSVPs as I am? (Ouch, ouch, ouch.)
Sometimes the application is more specific: Would it be OK if every business reporter invested in the stocks he writes about? Would it be OK if every journalist used professional acquaintances to get special favors?
See how helpful this is? It’s sort of a streamlined Golden Rule: Do as you would have everyone else do. Sometimes, you know, I fall short — but it’s not because I think I’m exempt from the conventions that should apply to everyone else.
The one-way test applies to big questions: Would it be OK if all the middle-class children, white and black, left the Little Rock School District? Down that path lies Detroit, Superintendent Baker Kurrus says — and I know he’s right. It applies to small questions: Would it be OK if everyone parked in the handicapped spot just for a quick errand?
Now let’s apply this one-question test to some newsmakers. Clearly it’s not OK if every judge reduces jury-ordered damages in exchange for campaign donations from the defendant. Former Circuit Judge Mike Maggio pleaded guilty to bribery for that. And former State Treasurer Martha Shoffner has reported to federal prison for steering state business to a bond broker, Steele Stephens, who regularly handed her thousands of dollars in cash.
Which reminds me: Would it be OK if everyone who bribes a state official got immunity from criminal prosecution and was allowed to keep the money he received in exchange for the bribes?
Some things that aren’t illegal still don’t pass the test.
• Would it be OK if every sitting member of the General Assembly received six-figure income representing 85 percent of the annual revenue of a tax-exempt nonprofit organization supported entirely by lobbyists? Michael Lamoureux, now Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s chief of staff, apparently did that when he was the Senate’s president pro tempore, and apparently it was legal. But does that sound like the kind of thing that would constitute good government if every legislator did the same? (And how many legislators are scrambling to set up just such a deal now that they know that it can be done?)
• Would it be OK if every constitutional officer spent hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars on no-bid contracts with for-profit companies for goods or services that have nothing to do with his official duties? In other words, would it be OK if everyone did what the current state treasurer, Dennis Milligan, did?
• Would it be OK if every legislator threatened to withhold funding from a state agency when a spouse is under investigation, as state Rep. Mary Bentley, R-Perryville, reportedly did when a Game & Fish Commission officer accompanied a federal Forest Service officer to her home to question her husband about suspected hunting violations in the Ouachita National Forest?
Here’s one that’s been nagging at me: Would it be OK if every state government job was handed out based on political connections and at higher salaries than experienced bureaucrats have been paid?
If I keep applying the one-way test, I may never be invited to another Rotary meeting.
Gwen Moritz is editor of Arkansas Business. Email her at GMoritz@ABPG.com.