Before I wrote this post, I wrote my resignation letter to my employer. Why? There were many factors, but my primary reason for wanting to leave was the ethical conflict that this job created for me.

In this awesome video, Josie asks a thought provoking question to police officers. “Is there anything the politicians could enact into law that you wouldn’t enforce?” Josie asserts that obedience is not a sufficient excuse for immoral actions and encourages police officers to decide where their boundary for obedience will be. I am not a police officer, but this is a question I have been pondering constantly.

For the past year, I have worked in regulatory compliance at a bank, focused primarily in lending compliance and the implementation of the Dodd-Frank Act. Basically, my job has been to make sure government mandates are being obeyed by employees and customers. Every day I have struggled with the degree to which I am willing to engage in and perpetuate a corrupt system. I have bitten my tongue to hold back my anger and the urge to lash out at the injustice. Yet, with a few words to acknowledge my own disapproval of the rules, I directed people to obey.

When I took the job, I knew I didn’t approve of the rules I would be indirectly enforcing. My reasoning for accepting anyway was that businesses need someone to perform this function so they could continue to operate, and as a student of Economics during the financial crisis of 2007-08, I was interested to learn about the legislative response to the events I had witnessed. Besides, as an ambitious college graduate with no money, I was thrilled to find an opportunity outside of retail.

Although I certainly did learn some things and gain a unique perspective from the experience, I did not anticipate the negative impact this job would have on me. I found that the longer I stayed the more depressed and anxious I became. I finally realized why! As someone who believes that blind obedience is one of the biggest threats to liberty, my daily responsibilities were in conflict with what I believe and who I am.

When I describe this internal conflict to others, they often remind me that I was not responsible for creating the regulations nor was I ultimately responsible for enforcing them. Although I am not responsible for the corruption of this system, I’m not proud of the role I have played in it. By encouraging obedience, I was a part of the problem. No, I am not responsible for what politicians do, what regulators do, or what banks do, but that is no excuse. I am responsible for what I do.

  • Erin

    I worked as a technical writer in the Compliance/Risk Management department of a mortgage bank for three years, and I recently moved to the DC area looking for basically any job that doesn’t involve the DOD or a security clearance, so I can certainly sympathize. I tried to justify my former post by telling myself I wasn’t involved in the enforcement of the laws, just the documentation, but I never felt good about it. On my last day, I wore a black shirt with a circled “A” on it, much to my progressive democrat boss’s disdain.

    I think a line has to be drawn between willful obedience in the service of harming others (or whatever your principle is) and recognizing that you have no viable alternatives and thus taking a bad job while continually working to find a way out. I have a friend in the movement who worked for CPS for as long as he could stand before leaving. He turned the experience into a means to expose the system and has created blog posts and podcasts about the horrors he saw while employed. However, that doesn’t mean he (as a libertarian) could take a job with his local police department, work there indefinitely without looking for alternatives, and absolve himself of hypocrisy because he never committed “official” corruption or because “ya gotta eat.”

    The behemoth infrastructure is in place, and as moral agents, we have to fight it where we can without throwing ourselves on a grenade. I think we each have to take a good hard HONEST look at ourselves and figure out what can and can’t do to maintain our moral essence. I also think most people are probably doing more rationalizing than not and I admire you for being the exception and being able to take the leap. Good luck.

    • Brittney Wheeler

      Hi Erin! I love that you wore that shirt on your last day. Hmmm…maybe I should do something similar for mine 🙂
      I can definitely relate to the issue of having no alternatives. Believe me, I would have quit before now if I had alternatives. I think everyone’s situation is different, but it is important that each person really think about their role within the infrastructure.

      • Erin

        I can lend it to you!

        I completely agree that people in general lean more towards staying comfortable than martyrdom. I just don’t want you to feel like a hypocrite when the reality is that we do more for the movement if we’re not struggling to scrape by. I learned that years ago when I became a vegan. Too many people in that sub genre attack anyone who doesn’t fit the towed-line definition of “vegan”, which is impossible, and moreover, makes the prospect of being a responsible food consumer seem too daunting for most people to undertake.

        I would love to know how you were able to find a viable way to support yourself, since I’m now facing a similar dilemma.

        • Brittney Wheeler

          I was able to get a job at a great libertarian organization near DC. I know it isn’t easy to figure out alternatives, and I hope you find something soon. Also, I really like your piece on opting out. I pay taxes so I do recognize that obedience is sometimes necessary. I think you are right on target to say that each person has to weigh his or her own options. There is no one size fits all approach to these things. I encourage disobedience, but I also think we should each live our lives according to our own values and as freely as possible. Unfortunately, sometimes that requires obedience.

          • Erin

            If the organization is still hiring, let me know!

          • Brittney Wheeler

            I’ll PM you 🙂

  • Julie

    I recently dealt with the same conflict during my work ghostwriting for a PR firm. I was asked to write things I didn’t agree with and participate in a type of content farm that exploited young writers (we were paid, but not given public credit for our writing). We were asked to churn out multiple poorly-researched articles each day to benefit our higher-ups, improve their “personal brand” and earn them more business. This is just the short version, of course. But I spent months looking for a way out and finally landed a job that aligns with my values. Being subservient just to ensure I got a paycheck was no way to live, and the cognitive dissonance ate at me every day, causing severe depression, anxiety and panic attacks (not to mention I was coerced into doing more work when I asked for time off to deal with said mental health crisis). Good for you for getting out, and may others be as strong when faced with immoral tasks and responsibilities.

    • Brittney Wheeler

      Thanks for your comment, Julie. It took me a while to realize this job was the main source of my anxiety. I’m glad you realized it, and I’m happy you found a job that lines up with your values. I have done the same, and it is a great feeling!

  • Noah

    Is there a qualitative difference in the scope, service constituency, and impact on liberty of being a private compliance officer–ensuring private businesses do not break the law–versus a public police officer–pursuing those who do? If so, how does this bear on your analogized feelings of being, essentially, a dirty cop (or even a decent cop in a dirty system)? In short, if so, is your reasoning still valid? And, if so, then what is your goal?

    I appreciate your concern about moral conflicts in the workplace; it’s one of the reasons I didn’t go to work for Goldman, like many of my friends. But, honestly, regulatory compliance seems to me to be the one of the decent occupations in a corrupt industry, unless, of course, you spend all day finding ways to circumvent laws in order to continue to screw people. However, this latter objective of effectively nullifying government policies by circumventing them would seem to be a rather anarchic goal. So, is your issue with your work in the firm that it forced you to uphold governmental policies you didn’t like, or that it forced you to violate those policies to screw people, which you didn’t like doing? Can you elaborate on your beef?

    • Brittney Wheeler

      Great questions! Based on my own experience, the differences between employment in banking and government are almost nonexistent. I am sure this isn’t the case with many businesses,but banks often operate as an arm of the federal government. See my previous piece on this topic.

      The issue with my job was having to enforce ridiculous regulations that harm both employees of the bank and customers. I often spent hours trying to find some small clarification just to make sure we weren’t breaking the law. Structuring laws are one example of the crazy laws banks enforce for the government. Check out this court case.

      • Noah

        Thanks for replying so quickly. I appreciate you sharing your experience publicly. I imagine it would be very difficult, especially on such a sensitive topic. You have presented your case very well and I would be interested to hear more. To that end, I responded, at times pointedly, to your article to provide some substance for a rebuttal further explaining your actions in the story and intent in sharing this story.

        If I took the Dehko case from IJ as the characteristic example of why you didn’t like your job, it was because you didn’t like enforcing Federal policy with which you disagreed.

        Spending hours at your job to make sure your employer isn’t breaking the law sounds like a pretty reasonable and normal day for a compliance officer, especially for a large corporation with significant financial interests in remaining legally compliant. It’s the nature of the game, especially from the rational perspective libertarians prefer. You are certainly free to leave the firm, as you did, but such isn’t necessarily moral, nor necessarily any more moral than remaining within the system.

        An issue with the time-intensive compliance checks that you disliked for me, if I were you, would have been that the checks were necessary in the first place. It would bother me that my employer had strayed close enough to illegality that they hired me to check to make sure they didn’t go over the edge, or retrieve them if they had. However, the best way for me to address my concerns over my role within the company is by working within the company to clarify and correct deviations.

        If something feels wrong, it probably is. Working in the system will be the most efficient avenue to right the wrong. Contrary to libertarian doctrine, systems are not designed to be evil. If they do evil, they probably are not working as intended and can be corrected to do good. For instance, there may be some waiver or exemption somewhere in the code regulating the Dehko’s deposit to differently categorize them so that they are not confused with drug dealers.

        While the Dehko’s case illustrates some negative consequences of structuring policies, poor implementation does not mean the underlying policy is wrong. This policy partly exists to make sure banks aren’t legal money launderers. I think money laundering is something worth stopping, although others likely feel differently.

        It sucks to be part of shoddy implementation, especially when it hurts people and/or runs counter to the intent of the policy. In this sense, I can appreciate the analogy of the good cop in the dirty system.

        Just like the good cop, walking away from the dirty system is a selfish moral act with no greater moral superiority from a consequential perspective than remaining within the system because both actions allow the system to persist, as opposed to changing it. Unfortunately, the moral action to uphold your values might risk the martyrdom you refuse. Certainly, it would require you to remain within the system. And rightly, accepting martyrdom is not he only road to moral rectitude, but it may be the only one to moral leadership.

        You stated that martyrdom was unacceptable to you. To me, such represents moral cowardice and selfishness, demonstrating a lack of serious conviction. Yes, you sacrificed, pay, some stability, and maybe some prestige by leaving, but not anything more dear, like your life, career, or principles. This is not inherently bad, but it might just make one a hypocrite, if one encouraged others to follow the path that one was unprepared to follow oneself.

        I think your greatest position to affect your desired change was when you were in the system, so I don’t think walking away has positioned you better to combat that which you dislike. I appreciate your reticence toward rash action, but I wonder whether you have taken the most courageous approach to your values. It’s fine if you haven’t, but then I would be more hesitant to trumpet my virtue and values.

        If everyone who agreed with you did as you did, then the only thing that would change would be that opponents of the system–those most apt to understand potential improvements to it–would be flushed from it. The system itself would remain intact and imperfect, causing addition, preventable harm, so I wonder if your case is really a worthy example for people to follow in order to affect the change you advocate.

        Again, I appreciate your courage in presenting this story. These comments are designed to be thought-provoking, not offensive, because I do not truly believe them with the force of their language.


        • Brittney Wheeler

          Thanks for your comments and questions. I didn’t like enforcing laws that I didn’t agree with, but its even more than that. I don’t believe the system is going to change unless people stop accepting its authority over them. I don’t believe anyone, especially a Compliance Specialist at a community bank is going to change the system by accepting it and trying to work within it. What could I have done from within the system? The only things I can think of would have gotten me fired or put in jail.

          That brings me to your comment about martyrdom.As I mentioned before, I wouldn’t encourage anyone to be a martyr. Although there may be rare exceptions, I don’t see how being a martyr achieves any more for the cause of liberty than leaving the system. Additionally, although I value the cause of liberty, I am certainly not willing to give up all of my freedom in order to prove a point, nor do I believe there is a moral obligation to do so. My life is no less important than the lives of others whose freedom I hope to increase, and if I make myself a martyr I doubt I would achieve more freedom for anyone.

          “Yes, you sacrificed, pay, some stability, and maybe some prestige by leaving, but not anything more dear, like your life, career, or principles.”

          Morality is not based on how much I sacrifice for something I believe in, it is acting in a way that is consistent with my own reason and conscience. To defer to someone else’s reason and claim no responsibility for my actions is not moral. I am not saying that obedience is necessarily immoral either. It depends on the circumstances. To me, there is a difference in the morality of an action performed freely and an action performed under duress.

          “For instance, there may be some waiver or exemption somewhere in the code regulating the Dehko’s deposit to differently categorize them so that they are not confused with drug dealers.”

          Providing exemptions for some cases is a good intent, but it’s the exemptions and waivers that make the regulations more and more convoluted as those within the system try to improve them. There is no way for a lawmaker or regulator to imagine all of these scenarios. What these exemptions end up doing is creating more pages to read when deciding if something is allowed or not. This stifles diversity and innovation because everyone has to stay within a box. Even creating a new product or service, no matter how beneficial it may be, might not be worth all the work to make sure it is allowed.

          “It would bother me that my employer had strayed close enough to illegality that they hired me to check to make sure they didn’t go over the edge, or retrieve them if they had.”

          As I described above, the regulations are massive mazes to navigate. It should come as no surprise that firms have to hire people. It is extremely easy to miss a small detail and have a compliance violation. Also, with laws like Dodd-Frank, the changes are beyond difficult to keep up with and implement. Even a minor change can require huge system changes.

          You asked about why I wrote this. I wanted to get people to think about their own role within corrupt systems.I am not recommending that my approach is the best one for everyone, but I want to encourage others to recognize that they are the only legitimate authority over their own life and to think about their actions and decide when it is acceptable for them to obey.