Before his execution, Socrates was visited in prison by his friend Crito, who told him the bribes for the guards were ready and Socrates could escape whenever he wished. Socrates refused to go.
Crito, angered, argued Socrates would a) leave his children orphans and b) bring shame on his friends, because people would assume they were too cheap to finance his escape. (Apparently, this sort of thing was common in Athens in those days.)
Socrates replied that in his imagination, he hears the Laws of Athens saying, “What do you mean by trying to escape but to destroy us, the Laws, and the whole city so far as in you lies? Do you think a state can exist and not be overthrown in which the decisions of law are of no force and are disregarded and set at naught by private individuals?”
In short, either Socrates or the rule of law had to die. Socrates chose to die rather than diminish his city. Now, as then, he’d be a lonely guy. His notion that the city lay within him – that he was the city of Athens – is striking.
All failure to enforce law – or to work around it – is bad. This applies equally to speed limits, armed robbery and banking regulations. Failure to enforce our agreed-upon standards weakens our social bonds and undermines faith in both our justice system and our government. If the police will not apprehend or the courts will not prosecute or the legislatures draw protective circles around certain elements in society, then society as a whole suffers.
There is within all of us an affinity for justice. The majority of citizens have no training in law or political science, but we possess intuitive notions of right and wrong. We’re willing to tolerate some discrepancy on either margin of the page, but when things are pushed too far out of balance on either side, then the door to vigilantism, riot and revolution is opened.
This great imbalance – and we’re getting strong whiffs of it now – is a failure by our institutions to enforce the terms of the American social contract.
“America is a classless society.” “All citizens stand equal before the law.” Blah, blah, blah. It’s illegal to rob a convenience store. It’s illegal to defraud investors. The accused robber, who flashed a knife and made off with eighty or a hundred bucks, sits behind steel bars and waits for his overburdened public defender to get around to speaking with him.
The accused fraudulent investment fund manager, who flashed a phony set of books and made off with eight or fifty billion dollars, sits in his cosmopolitan penthouse and consults a million-dollar legal team, which he pays with ill-gotten dosh.
If we vigorously enforce laws on the working class and make only half-hearted attempts to do so with the managing class, then the class warfare Republican politician are always whining about comes closer to reality.
Worse, by allowing Ken Lays, Bernie Madoffs and Allen Stanfords to get off easy, it destroys real opportunity for people in the working classes to realize the American dream for themselves and their children. The crimes of the managing class – unlike the convenience store robber – have the real effect of depriving millions – both here and abroad – of their livelihoods and homes when the financial system crashes.
In the news and before Congressional committees, we hear that regulators were specifically warned for years that Bernie Madoff and Allen Stanford were violating regulations.
While the beltway talkers argue over whether Wall Street bankers should be allowed to keep their bonuses and exorbitant salaries, the discussion that had yet to start is: why were these highly leveraged instruments and securitized debt transactions legal in the first place? We’re told incessantly that the Wall Street banking transactions were so complicated that “no one really understands them.” There is, however, the easily understood principle that one’s debts should be balanced by one’s assets. Or at least one’s assets should be within shouting distance of one’s debts.
We have speed limits not because driving 110 is inherently evil, but because it is unsafe and anyone who does shows reckless disregard for themselves and others. And yet, a legion of reckless drivers loosed on the interstate for a decade could not have wrought as much misery as this handful of bankers, brokers and hedge fund managers.
We will now suffer for years. These will be hard times, but within this hardship will be opportunities to rediscover the extent to which our society lives within in us, as Socrates would have said.
© 2009, Mark Floegel