Tuesday, May 24, 2016
The state is “a gang of thieves writ large,” economist Murray Rothbard is said to have remarked. I’ve always viewed that sort of comment with a bit of skepticism. But now I’m beginning to wonder.
I wonder more when I read things like this report from the Washington Examiner: “The CIA's inspector general is claiming it inadvertently destroyed its only copy of a classified, three-volume Senate report on torture, prompting a leading senator to ask for reassurance that it was in fact ‘an accident.’”
Here’s a hint: It very likely wasn’t.
Is that unfair? I mean, it could have been an accident, right? Yeah it could have been. But it wasn’t. Accidents like that just don’t happen — or, when they do, they’re generally not accidents. And it’s right for people who have custody of evidence to know that any convenient “accidents” will give rise to the presumption that they had something pretty awful to hide, and that they hid it.
But, of course, the CIA’s “accident” was only the latest in a long rash of “accidental” losses of incriminating information in this administration. The IRS — whose Tea Party-targeting scandal is now over 1,100 days old without anyone being charged or sent to jail — seems to have a habit of ”accidentally” destroying hard drives containing potentially incriminating evidence. It has done so in spite of court orders, in spite of Congressional inquiries and in spite of pretty much everyone’s belief that these “accidents” were actually the deliberate, illegal destruction of incriminating evidence to protect the guilty.
Then there’s Hillary’s email scandal, in which emails kept on a private unsecure server — presumably to avoid Freedom of Information Act disclosures — were deleted. Now emails from Hillary’s IT guy, who is believed to have set up the server, have gone poof.
“Destroy the evidence, and you’ve got it made,” said an old frozen dinner commercial. But now that appears to be the motto of the United States government.
So why do the rest of us bother to obey the law? And, yes, that’s an increasingly serious question.
People follow the law for a mix of reasons. First, they may simply fear punishment. That undoubtedly motivates a lot of people, though in fact the risk of punishment is usually pretty low, and people, in general, obey the law even when the risk of being caught is negligible.
People may also obey the law because they agree with it: I don’t need to worry about the likelihood of punishment for torturing kittens because I think that’s wrong, and I wouldn’t do it anyway.
And people may obey the law because they think that being law-abiding is an important part of maintaining a viable society. But that’s the kind of law-abiding behavior that’s at risk when people at the top treat the law with unconcealed contempt.
Being law-abiding for its own sake is a traditional part of bourgeois culture, and our ruling class has lately treated the bourgeoisie with contempt as well. Which raises the risk that this contempt will be returned.
Back in the midst of the financial crisis, Gonzalo Lira looked at how people were responding to the mortgage meltdown and warned of a coming middle-class anarchy. He wrote:
“A terrible sentence, when a law-abiding citizen speaks it: Everybody else is doing it — so why don’t we? ... What’s really important is that law-abiding middle-class citizens are deciding that playing by the rules is nothing but a sucker’s game.”
America has been — and, for the moment, remains — a high-trust society. In high-trust societies, people extend trust to strangers and follow rules for the most part even when nobody is watching. In low-trust societies, trust seldom extends beyond close family, and everybody cheats if they can get away with it.
High-trust societies are much nicer places to live than low-trust ones. But a fish rots from the head and the head of our society is looking pretty rotten. As Lira says, “I’m like Wayne Gretsky: I don’t concern myself with where the puck has been — I look for where the puck is going to be.” Where will our society be in a decade if these trends continue? And what can we do to ensure that they don’t?