THE BLOG

The Death and Rebirth of Accountability

05/16/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Throughout the world, death and rebirth seem intimately joined. Winter gives way to spring. Economic downturns precede creative reconfigurations. Neighborhoods break up and come back. Failures can lead to success. At Easter, Christians celebrate this theme in its ultimate incarnation -- the creator of all comes among us to die and arise.

In recent years, we've been witnessing throughout the culture a major and disturbing social death: the death of accountability. In politics, business, and all our major institutions, people have been doing whatever they can to avoid any form of accountability for their actions, and they've unfortunately managed to achieve this on a truly disturbing scale.

This phenomenon is behind so many of our highly publicized scandals, and it's at the core of our financial crisis. We can see it almost everywhere in our lives. In an increasingly complex hyper-speed world where work days are long and attention spans short, with a relentless 24-hour news cycle throwing us new stories and gossip to replace old headlines before the previous day's events have even begun to sink in, it's much tougher to insist on any form of accountability for anything that happens. And yet, how can a society function without it?

We live in Waiver Nation. I was recently driving behind a dump truck with a huge sign warning: "Stay 200 Feet Back. Not Responsible for Damage." When I pulled into a parking lot, a prominent notice stated, "Not Responsible for Loss, Theft or Damage." It reminded me of the dry cleaner. Go in for any medical or professional treatment. The paperwork precedes any other process, and disclaimers abound. Simply take your kids to a water park or skating rink. But first sign the release forms. I'm surprised we don't see people all around in T-shirts emblazoned with the words, "Not Responsible in Any Way."

No one will testify in court or before Congress without immunity first. And then, they'll still insist on portraying events as if they just happened, with no one in particular at fault -- "Mistakes were made." The attitude is: We do something perfectly harmless, and then factors outside our control take it where they will. We can't be responsible for the outcomes. Who can?

Harry Truman famously had a sign on his desk that said, "The Buck Stops Here." Everybody knew what it meant, and admired Truman for the stance it announced. President Obama recently paraphrased it and applied it to himself. But many people just seem perplexed by the notion.

I once had a student from a small town in Iowa. He told me that, growing up, he never got in trouble because, as he put it, "If I ever did anything I wasn't supposed to do, five people would spank me before my mother found out about it."

A barbershop in a rural town in North Carolina never locks its doors. People pay for things on the honor system. The 85 year-old proprietor says, "Everybody knows everybody. Nobody would even think about stealing, and it's not because of the police."

Small towns in remote settings can even now still benefit from networks of relationships that are characterized by three qualities that strongly encourage accountability:

1. Proximity. People deal with people they live near. Face-to-face interaction is the norm. If you treat someone badly today, you'll likely see him tomorrow.

2. Longevity. Individuals tend to know each other for a long time, and may work together or do business with each other for decades. Actions can reverberate for a lifetime and affect everyone's long-term prospects, for good or ill.

3. Density. People know each other's siblings, cousins, spouses, kids, and parents. They tend to have friends in common. They socialize and work together. They may go fishing together. They've helped each other in times of need. The interconnections between their lives are many.

So many developments in the past century that have increased our mobility and communications have subtly eroded these three qualities in our relationships. These developments -- most beneficial in many ways -- have all been vulnerable to the famous "Law of Unintended Consequences," and like many other good things, have had implications we never anticipated. Some of these results have allowed accountability to die a slow death in our time. Once we understand how this has taken place, we can act to turn it around.

The death of accountability can be seen manifested in various ways, and some of the problems date from ancient times, but have been accelerated greatly in the recent past:

1. Displacement: The Bible represents a guilty Adam as saying to God in the Garden: "It wasn't me, it was the woman you gave me." Notice the double displacement in this remark, seeking to implicate both the companion and the creator in Adam's misdeed. Nothing ever happens in isolation. One way of avoiding accountability is to point to any possible influence as the real source of whatever problem is at issue.

2. Denial: Cain, who murdered Able, was asked where his brother is. He says, "Am I my brother's keeper?" He denies any responsibility regarding his sibling, and his own terrible deed. With the bold move of denial, loopholes are typically replaced by lies, and the malefactor brazenly challenges us to drop our suspicions and just move on.

3. Deflection: This may be the most classic form of the "Mistakes-were-made" strategy. There's no clear denial, or even any specific displacement of responsibility onto another particular person. Deflection is the most general misdirection ploy by which an individual seeks to step outside the spotlight and encourage our attention to be directed almost anywhere else.

4. Diffusion: This may be the problem most distinctive to recent events. Once a threshold of complexity has been crossed - in organizations, industries, or societies - it can become nearly impossible to pin responsibility on anyone in particular, even apart from bold denials, displacements, and deflections. As long as no one steps up and takes responsibility, it's exceptionally difficult in situations of great diffusion to identify where the buck stops. A climate of diffusion, of course, also allows for more effective displacements, denials, and deflections. The diffusion arising from complexity underwrote a conscious strategy used years ago at Enron: Make things complicated enough, and it will be hard to hold anyone accountable. It didn't work for long in Houston, but it's something that's increasingly exploited, and it allows for the creation of havoc, while many of those genuinely responsible for any give problem slip away.

When we understand these different ways of avoiding accountability, we can spot them more easily and be better positioned to unravel their unfortunate effectiveness. But the most challenging aspect of the situation we face now is not just that of fingering individual wrong doers. We need to grapple with the more general challenge of how to recreate some version of the small town conditions for accountability that are its historic soil, and yet still do business on the large scale that our technology both allows and necessitates. It's time for a rebirth of accountability. And I sense this is a widespread feeling throughout the culture. But how will it happen?

As we've seen, regulatory agencies alone aren't the full solution. They can fall to the same problems -- and then who will watch the watchmen? As the Roman poet Horace once asked, "What can empty laws accomplish without moral standards?" And so the question is: how can there be a general ethos of solid and pervasive moral standards once more? We need good laws, and effective regulation. But most of all, we need to restore in our nation an overall moral culture of accountability. Having seen the consequences of its recent demise, I believe we're newly motivated to bring it back to life. To put it metaphorically, in terms of an iconic organization, perhaps Merrill Lynch needs to come to Mayberry, and not just Charlotte, or Mayberry needs to come to Merrill Lynch.