Fiscal fundamentalists

They save us the bother of serious involvement

Issue: "Illegal siblings project," Feb. 2, 2002

I've tried this week, but failed, to learn what Kenneth Lay's childhood religious influences might have been. If he was privileged, as I was, to be exposed during his boyhood to the Westminster Shorter Catechism, then he should right now be especially ashamed of himself.

Kenneth Lay is the chairman and chief executive of the embattled and bankrupt Enron Corporation of Houston. But it isn't just Enron that lies in ruins now as a result of Mr. Lay's failed stewardship, and that of his executive team. Nor is it just the thousands of Enron stockholders and employees whose personal and family finances are strewn in shambles all over the Texas landscape. Nor is it primarily the reputation of a once highly regarded accounting firm like Arthur Andersen.

Much more costly in many ways-especially over the long haul-is the damage Mr. Lay and his careless colleagues have done to the essence of the free-market system. Whenever somebody abuses freedom, others always rush in to try to take that freedom away. So capitalism already is taking its licks every day now in the marketplace of ideas. Editorialists and analysts are explaining how the whole fiasco proves the need for a new round of government restraints, and maybe even whole new armies of government bureaucrats.

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People who argue that way are fiscal fundamentalists. They think that you can improve people's financial behavior just by drawing up a long enough list of rules and regulations-and then working hard to enforce that list. If some folks don't show financial responsibility, tie them up with codes and footnotes and force them to observe your list of rules.

The problem, of course, is that no one-not even the government with all its resources-can compile a wise enough list of rules to force people to be good. What's needed instead, as the book of Deuteronomy reminds us, is for the law to be written on our hearts. No fundamentalist checklist, no matter how fanatically enforced, will ever carry the clout that is exercised by well-taught people who have God's truth so engraved within their souls that its myriad implications keep pounding their otherwise wandering consciences.

That's why the writers of the Westminster Catechism in the late 1640s, while encouraging readers to learn the Ten Commandments themselves, also suggested a mind-boggling appendage to each of those commandments. What all does this commandment require? What all does this commandment forbid? And only with the full breadth of God's law in view was the student ready to go out and take on a complex assignment in real life-an assignment, for example, like running Enron.

What would have happened if Kenneth Lay had been urged by his parents when he was young to grapple with this remarkable answer to Question 142 in the larger version of the famous catechism? "What are the sins forbidden in the eighth commandment? Answer: The sins forbidden in the eighth commandment, besides the neglect of the duties required, are, theft, robbery, man-stealing, and receiving anything that is stolen; fraudulent dealing, false weights and measures, removing land marks, injustice and unfaithfulness in contracts between man and man, or in matters of trust; oppression, extortion, usury, bribery, vexatious lawsuits, unjust enclosures and depopulations; engrossing commodities to enhance the price; unlawful callings, and all other unjust or sinful ways of taking or withholding from our neighbor what belongs to him, or of enriching ourselves; covetousness; inordinate prizing and affecting worldly goods; distrustful and distracting cares and studies in getting, keeping, and using them; envying at the prosperity of others; as likewise idleness, prodigality, wasteful gaming; and all other ways whereby we do unduly prejudice our own outward estate, and defrauding ourselves of the due use and comfort of that estate which God has given us."

If that isn't a short course in business ethics, even for the modern day, it's hard to think how you might improve on it. A 21st-century executive might well gather his COO, his CFO, his lawyer, his accountant, and the rest of his management team for an orientation course and say quite simply and confidently: "Get that statement straight, and everything else will pretty much take care of itself."

I understand how our theologically illiterate age might balk at trying to get busy people to spend much time with a catechetical expansion of one of the Ten Commandments. So such folks might have to settle for the short version, where Jesus summarized things by saying even more tersely: "Love your neighbor as yourself." I think, if asked, He would have said that neighbors include employees and stockholders.


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