Political corruption is not unique to New Jersey. It is a malady as old as civilization itself. In an explosion of materialism, civilization offered the promise of more to agricultural villagers - trade and commerce (usually connected to war), growth, development, jobs. The rulers cashed in; the masses got hopes and "stuff."

Since ancient times, civilization has used law to curb the sins and arrogance, the influence-peddling and graft of the powerful. But it doesn't work. New Jersey is just one illustration.

Right from the start of our nation, dark clouds of corruption hung over New Jersey. During the 19th century, commercial and industrial development, underpinned by the railroad, brought about waves of corruption in the state. The Stevens family controlled the Camden and Amboy Railroad, or C&A, the only fast link for goods and services between New York City and Philadelphia. The state Legislature was virtually owned by the C&A, and New Jersey financed its government with transit duties paid by C&A.

Later in the 19th century, New Jersey became a haven for half of America's top 300 corporations because of easy laws and look-the-other way attitudes of government. Then came machine politics and its graft and corruption. New Jersey machines arrived a bit late, but perhaps we perfected the system. Jersey City Mayor Frank Hague came to power as a reformer in 1917 and lasted until 1949. With political machines, the powerful got more, but almost everybody got something, from the Christmas turkey to the special policeman's badge.

Of course, law came to correct all of these abuses. Long before Hague, graft was outlawed. Public service became a public trust. Progressive reformers passed tough anti-trust laws and laws to form nonpartisan urban governments.

But look around at our world. How do you think all this happened? Who is to say who paid whom for which development projects and contracts over the last 50 years? The most recent events cast doubt on the legitimacy of major development anywhere. The genetic code of civilization itself seems to serve up indictments.

Will the curse of civilization ever end? Yes, hopefully, when humanity enters the coming post-civilization phase with totally new educational institutions, government systems and social policies. Right now, we can make a start.

First, let's be clear. More laws are not the answer. The law is a maintenance drug, not a cure. We need a different kind of change. To start with, in New Jersey, we must identify a shadowy group of people who are rarely referenced in the corruption reports. All investigatory resources must be brought to bear and once ferreted out, this group must be scrutinized, its motivations understood. Then they must be held up to the public for citation, adulation and imitation. These are the individuals whom the bribers were told to avoid, the ones who wouldn't take the money, who didn't play by the corrupt rules. Call them the uncivilized among us.

My intuition tells me that in this group are different concepts of service and leadership and fair ideas about who and what deserve more. If just a fraction of the media coverage given to the culprits were given to these righteous citizens, we might make real progress toward changing the civilized way of doing business.

A second most beneficial change involves a novel use of senior citizens. All societies before the 20th century recognized the importance and value of their golden-agers. They possessed wisdom unknown to younger, brasher folks. Collectively they had experience, knowledge and skills in all important areas of life.

Hence, I propose creating a Senior Council of retired individuals over the age of 55 to serve as watchdogs over all growth and development projects in their jurisdiction. The council will have only one responsibility - to discover and to make known to the general population of the district full details and consequences of such projects.

Council members must be strictly nonpartisan. They will not sit in judgment. They will not investigate matters. Voters and constituted authorities will do that. As in the procedures of the colonial New England town, council members will present themselves to district peer groups for selection. Districts should contain fewer than 15,000 residents.

With just these two changes, we can energize a long train of change. Post-civilized society can still develop and grow, but with a clear appreciation of the entire community and of service to it, not to self.

Silvio Laccetti is a professor of humanities at Stevens Institute of Technology. E-mail: slaccetti@stevens.edu.

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