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Opinion: Do you have a conscience? How about Americans in general? Does it matter?

Whoever anonymously gave $300 to Orem City for damages done to stop signs years ago has raised important questions for the rest of us

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Someone recently donated $300 to Orem City, with a note saying it was to pay for damages done to city signs when the donor was a teenager. This act of restitution raises questions for everyone about honesty and conscience.

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“There is only one way to achieve happiness on this terrestrial ball, and that is to have either a clear conscience or none at all.” — Ogden Nash.

Whoever sent $300 anonymously to Orem City earlier this month, along with a letter saying he was paying for damage he did to some stop signs as a teenager, clearly had a conscience.

The rest of us?

The jury is out on that one. But then, how would you gauge such a thing? 

Maybe you do so with another question. How much would you need to steal, or perhaps receive in error, before you would feel enough guilt to return it?  

Would 9 cents be enough? Back in the 19th century, news accounts told of a man who sent the federal government that amount because he had once reused a canceled 3-cent stamp and he couldn’t take the guilt. He felt the right thing to do was to return threefold what he had stolen. 

I found that story in a newspaper published in 1884. Using an inflation calculator, that 9 cents equates to $2.64 today. Still not more than pocket change, something few people carry in cash these days.

But then, you could turn the question around. For how little money would you compromise your integrity?

These seem like old-fashioned questions in a world where credit cards make money an almost ethereal concept, and where Washington spends the stuff in quantities far larger than it collects, then redistributes some of it in checks to almost every taxpayer. 

It may seem silly in the face of inflation. Raise your hand if you bother bending over to pick up a penny you find on the street. A dime? A quarter? How much would it take to make it worthwhile to pick up? And then, how much would you need to find before you felt it important enough to locate the owner?

These questions also seem quaint in an America dominated by political passions, where people seem unfazed by responsibility as they pass along unsubstantiated rumors about their perceived enemies or demonize the loyal opposition. Do you believe politics is all about lying, with style?

If so, perhaps the next thing I’m about to tell you will make you scoff. The federal government has something called a “conscience fund,” for people to make anonymous donations if they have, in some way, stolen from the government and would like to make things right.

This isn’t a new thing. The Conscience Fund was established in 1811 after President James Madison found $5 on his desk, sent anonymously to the U.S. Treasury. From then on, you can find mentions of the fund from time to time in newspapers. 

It still exists. Donations aren’t investigated. The money is used for general purposes.

In 1924, The New York Times reported that a woman sent in $100, with a note that said, “When in Europe I bought a watch which I wore when landing. It was not included in my declaration, and I enclose $100 to cover duty on same, believing that I shall never be satisfied otherwise.”

That one could have been written yesterday. And yes, that must have been some watch.

A Treasury spokesperson told me people still donate to the fund, although the amount varies widely from year to year. In 2014, people contributed a combined $1,147,276.58. In 2020, the amount was only a paltry $6,855.

Does this mean, as the Hillsdale Daily News suggested in 2018, that the fund is being depleted? That’s hard to deduce when the fund receives almost no publicity.

Does it mean people are growing so distrustful of the government they feel few qualms about keeping ill-gotten gains? Most likely not, any more than Orem’s anonymous payer of restitution likely gave any thought to recent City Council decisions before calling for an estimate on the damage he caused to six to 10 “mostly stop signs” before sending the money.

That’s the thing about a guilty conscience. It cares more about honesty, about making things right, than any other nuance. 

Or, as one man wrote a century ago while contributing to the conscience fund, “I have hesitated about sending all this money because I think it does not really belong to the government, but conscience has given me no rest until I have consummated my four-fold return, like the publican of old.”

We may never be able to gauge the nation’s collective conscience. All we may know for sure is that this nation wouldn’t be a nice place to live if that gauge registered nothing at all.

Jay Evensen is a Deseret News columnist.