Trust, but verify

By Carlos Alberto Montaner (*)

Perhaps the only concept of Russian culture that fascinated Ronald Reagan was that old proverb: “Trust, but verify.” The U.S. president was not much of a wishful thinker when it came to human nature. The willingness to deceive, trick or take advantage of others' unwariness is a sad constant in the history of our specie.

We have just seen that in the fraud committed by the Volkswagen auto maker. Its engineers created an ingenious computer program to evade the United States' official standards for environmental protection. Some of its cars polluted the air as much as 40 times the allowed maximum. Company officials were not concerned about poisoning the atmosphere, so long as they could make more money.

Infamy's global history has a thousand examples of this, from the giant Enron, which beautified its ledgers, to the despicable anecdote about Turing Pharmaceuticals, whose principal shareholder is an unscrupulous young man named Martin Shkreli.

This character bought the rights to a drug that fights toxoplasmosis, a parasitic disease that can be lethal, transmitted to humans through the feces of cats, especially devastating to AIDS patients because they lack the natural defense mechanisms. Shkreli then multiplied the cost of the pills 5,000 times, from $13.50 to $750 a pill, making it impossible for many patients to treat themselves.

Shkreli sought refuge in the legal argument: that he did violate any law and was protected by property rights. He did what he did because he could do it. That much is true. It wasn't a crime. It was an abomination. Fondling your grandmother's corpse may not be a crime but it's certainly repugnant.

Somehow, his reasoning was similar to the one wielded by slave traders up until the 19th Century. Slaves were property and the State could not challenge that right -- until the legislators understood that, yes, there were limits and it was necessary to establish them. One person cannot own another person, any more than buying the rights on oxygen or solar light.

What seems to have no limits is the defense of economic interests. Religious people in the United States and England used to invoke passages from the Bible to justify slavery. They insisted that black people descended from Ham, brother of Shem and Japheth, supposedly sentenced by Noah, the father, to serve as slaves to whites.

There were reasons, founded on ethics. Slavery, some said, was an effective way to educate Africans into Christianity and to the western civilization. Allegedly, slaves lived better in the barracks, close to the whip of the field boss, than in the barbarous conditions of their ferocious and backward continent, permanently besieged by wild beasts, disease or mistreatment from enemy tribes.

The know-it-alls used pseudoscience as a shield: Africans were inferior, subhuman, they claimed. Aristotle had spoken about the existence of beings conceived to serve: the “slaves by nature.” It was the racial theory that would eventually beget Nazism. A French diplomat, Joseph Arthur de Gobineau wrote about it in the mid-19th Century in a book that had a disastrous influence: An Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races.

How do we fight against the tricks, falsifications, deceit by businesses, the lies of the politicians and functionaries who represent the State, the fraud by people who don't pay their taxes, or the “free riders” who make unwary people, who often without realizing it, pay for their debts,?

Obviously, it happens with clear and general rules for everyone to follow, enforced by watchful institutions beyond the reach of the hairy hands of the mighty, so as to preserve their capacity for action.

Therein the importance of comptrollers, auditors and autonomous agencies to examine the distance between the contracted commitments and reality is inferred. That is why it's vital that illegality be punished and decorous behavior be commended, until that system of rewards and punishment is transformed into a system of shared values.

Already in the Hammurabi Code, 2,000 years B.C., the need for weights and measures was established to prevent fraud by merchants. “If men were angels, no government would be necessary,” wrote James Madison. But we're not angels.

(*) Journalist and writer. His latest book is the novel A Time for Scoundrels. President of the Interamerican Institute for Democracy