Steve McEllistrem

The Devereaux Dilemma

Quid Pro Quo

There’s been a lot of talk of quid pro quo lately and I think it’s worth discussing because it’s prevalent in our society, albeit rarely formalized. With Trump and Ukraine, for example, it’s pretty clear that there was a quid pro quo even though nothing was written down; no conditions or restrictions were explicitly placed on the prime minister.

Foreign countries stay at his properties or even pay to stay at his properties and then don’t actually stay there (so there’s no wear and tear, or the properties can even be double booked) in the hopes of getting favorable treatment from the administration.

Or look at wealthy donors and universities. Again, nothing is stated as crassly as: “You admit my son and I’ll help build your new science lab.” Instead it’s often: “Let’s admit Mr. Lavish’s daughter because then he’ll be inclined to help pay for a new library.”

You see this in employment situations where Chelsea Clinton and Jenna Bush get jobs not because of their skills but because of their connections. Even if they have the minimum qualifications, they’re not the most qualified; they’re just the most high-profile.

Wealthy employers often hire the children of their friends or relatives. A Harvard degree isn’t nearly as important as knowing the right people. And if your friend’s child just happens to have a Harvard degree because of that child’s parents’ connections with VIPs from the university, so much the better.

This “nepotism” is always morally questionable and yet remains rampant in our society.

You see it in dating where the person in power uses that edge to get what he wants by implicitly promising something in exchange for sex, which is one reason why bosses should never date subordinates.

People in power have learned to make these quid pro quos implicit. Very few people are stupid enough to say, “Do this for me or else.” Doing it implicitly makes it a lot easier to have deniability. “I never said she had to do this in order to get that.”

But the point is you didn’t have to say it. That was understood from the beginning by both sides. If you have to say it, then you really don’t have the power you or they think you have. In this world, everything is an implicit deal. “I do this for you. You do that for me.”

When everything is a deal, when every transaction is assumed to be some sort of quid pro quo, trust in society breaks down. People assume that there has been some sort of payoff or side deal. Recently, a Democratic congressman resigned from a University of Minnesota paid fellowship (for which he got to write the job description and set his own hours) over questions about how he got the position. He had been hired by a former state senator from the same party.

It’s possible this was a legitimate transaction, but it certainly looks bad. So why do it? Obviously because they thought they could get away with it. They may not even have thought they did anything wrong. And that in itself is a problem. When you can’t recognize the corruption you’re engaged in, it’s harder to ferret it out in others.

Perhaps it’s no worse now than it always has been, but we see it more often now because of the pervasiveness of digital communication. This is a problem because trust in our leaders continues to erode. We now expect them to be cheating us pretty much every opportunity they get.

And when trust dies, society falls.


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