THE BLOG
06/10/2010 01:22 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Returning to Virtuous Governance

In 1793, Thomas Jefferson, wrote in a letter to Richard Henry Lee, "In a virtuous government...public offices are what they should be: burdens to those appointed to them, which it would be wrong to decline, though foreseen to bring with them intense labor and great private loss."

The language may be a bit archaic, but the message is clear and current. Public service is an honorable endeavor, but not one intended for private gain. This basic principle is at the core of our representative democracy.

The spate of corruption that has washed over our community in recent months has many consequences, intended and otherwise. It has reinforced our natural suspicions of government. It has shaken our confidence in those we have elected to serve the public interest. It has broken the social compact and has assaulted our trust. It has armed those who see all government as bad with the ammunition of thoughtless rhetoric. It has placed a cloud over every transaction made on the public's behalf.

Unfortunately, among the casualties of corruption are the vast majorities of dedicated men and women who believe in Jefferson's definition of public service. These people honor their public trust and execute their duties honestly and responsibly. As citizens, we need to resist the temptation to paint all public servants with the same broad brush rightly reserved for those who disgrace their offices.

Given the high-profile case of corruption, it is understandable why statutes are being proposed and ordinances enacted to tighten the rules governing those we have chosen to represent us. While it may be true that we cannot legislate morality or prevent someone determined to break the law from doing so, strict enforcement of ethics statutes and the meting of severe penalties for violating them may have some deterrent value.

What cannot be argued is that our community deserves to have its faith in all levels of government restored by all appropriate means.

One of those means is for concerned and informed members of our diverse community to engage in a higher level of civil discourse about our government and those we have elected to act on our behalf. These dialogues -- ongoing exchanges of deliberative thought -- would elevate awareness of the issues threatening the sustainability of our community and help re-establish trust in the partnership between the public and its elected representatives.

In demanding of ourselves a higher degree of participation, we will by extension be demanding greater openness and communication from those we have entrusted with the public's agenda. Through dialogues, the stereotypical characterizations of politicians could change as the citizenry becomes more aware of the difficulties of conducting the public's business.

From its founding, the United States has been a transactional democracy, constructed for commerce while based upon certain ideals. We require the people's business to be conducted through the honest deliberation and decision-making of those we elect to represent us. But as members of this community we all have a responsibility to participate beyond election cycles to maintain a balanced relationship between private citizen and public official.

The renowned anthropologist Margaret Mead once said, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; it is the only thing that ever has." We should never doubt that the destiny of our community, including overcoming the scars of corruption, will be written by those who care about its future and not those who abuse the privilege of holding the public's trust.