The phrase “conflict of interest” could get worn out soon as observers remark on the surprising unconcern by the public over actions by political figures in matters where they have an economic stake. Ethics experts have raised objections to not just the appearance, but the reality, of conflicts of interest. They include a president who continues to produce a TV show, his family members who are making administrative decisions and his appointees who have profited from inside political information. These objections have availed little, as standards of even the recent past no longer seem to apply.
The existence of conflicts is no small matter. But the larger question is why conflicts of interest don’t bother us more. It could indicate a more deeply ingrained cynicism than we thought we possessed, a sense there really is no higher objective than self-interest, and that we were only pretending before.
It is dangerous to expect good outcomes when people must choose between their own good and the good of the group they represent. Yet disregard for that threat is working its way into farm culture, as well, bringing pragmatic and moral burdens along with it.
Entrenched Conflicts. The election became partisan and lopsided in rural America, so two distinct conflicts of interests are solidifying. If you supported President Donald Trump, you are invested in his success, however you measure it, because it will validate your vote. The conflict for this large group is it appears his success could be painful for ag. Trade and immigration actions alone could deal blows to most sectors of the industry.
Meanwhile, if you opposed Trump, it is hard to want good things to happen. Yet there are few scenarios in which his failure will not pose a threat to your future. Poor presidential performance affects all of us negatively. It means little to be vindicated from the deck of a foundering ship.
As if that were not enough, there is another conflict closer to home. Increased competitive transparency has introduced aggressive rivals whose expansion has stunned competitors and boosted land rents. One suddenly showed up next to me with bids that dropped my jaw and baffled my spreadsheet. As I grapple with this threat, I find myself at times hoping prices drop so low his operation folds like a cheap tent. Such prices, though, would not generate a happy outcome for my own business, to put it mildly.
These examples demonstrate the ultimate hazard of allowing conflicts of interest to dominate our lives: they often yield no-win situations.
Think Broadly. But there is worse news. Research conducted over many years reveals our brains cannot be compartmentalized to overcome such conflicts. Perversely, admitting they exist worsens our ability to act rationally or ethically. Experts are unsure why, but motivated reasoning—the unconscious selection of data that fits our biases—could be one factor. This also explains why many of us are developing narrow information channels to avoid contradictory information. Regardless, successful coping with conflicts of interest basically boils down to one thing: avoidance.
This is useful advice for many cases, but not those listed above. When you cannot opt out, bringing in brains outside farming, or at least brains distant enough to be impartial, would help. For the Trump conflict, it is steadying to have friends in other countries or even access to foreign media such as Canada’s CBC News and China’s Xinhua News. In fact, coupled with the strength of the dollar, this might be a great year to do a little foreign travel. I’ll bet sharing a pint with a local in a British pub would improve the mental health of both participants.
Unlike much of our economy, agriculture is going into this administration on a marked downslope. We will need the clearest thinking we can muster. Unless we take care to manage our conflicts of interest, we probably won’t find it.