October 22nd, 2020


When leaders cheat, followers ... follow

Glenn Reynolds

By Glenn Reynolds

Published May 26, 2016

The state is "a gang of thieves writ large," economist Murray Rothbard is said to have remarked. Iíve always viewed that sort of comment with a bit of skepticism. But now Iím 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 Ďan accident.í"

Hereís a hint: It very likely wasnít.

Is that unfair? I mean, it could have been an accident, right? Yeah it could have been. But it wasnít. Accidents like that just donít happen — or, when they do, theyíre generally not accidents. And itís 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 CIAís "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 everyoneís belief that these "accidents" were actually the deliberate, illegal destruction of incriminating evidence to protect the guilty.

Then thereís Hillaryís email scandal, in which emails kept on a private unsecure server — presumably to avoid Freedom of Information Act disclosures — were deleted. Now emails from Hillaryís IT guy, who is believed to have set up the server, have gone poof.

"Destroy the evidence, and youíve 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, thatís 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 donít need to worry about the likelihood of punishment for torturing kittens because I think thatís wrong, and I wouldnít 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 thatís the kind of law-abiding behavior thatís 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 donít we? ... Whatís really important is that law-abiding middle-class citizens are deciding that playing by the rules is nothing but a suckerís 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, "Iím like Wayne Gretsky: I donít 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 donít?

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Glenn Harlan Reynolds, a University of Tennessee law professor, is the author of The New School: How the Information Age Will Save American Education from Itself and is a columnist at USA TODAY.