What a young con artist tells us about our society
Our laws represent our values as a society. So say Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Locke, who were very influential upon our Founding Fathers with their social contract theory.
According to the theory, the people enter into a contract with each other through which they give up certain of their own rights and privileges to the collective society in exchange for a just and stable government. It’s not by accident that the Constitution is written as a contract, in which “we the people” collectively agree to certain restrictions upon unfettered liberty “in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity…”
In writing those words, our Founding Fathers were putting social contract theory into action. In general, it has worked quite well, catapulting the United States into its current position as by far, the wealthiest and most powerful nation in history.
This is a problem for scholars of ethics, however. In discussing ethics, we are conscious of the fact that everyone has a different set of ethical standards. No matter how closely two people agree on their values, there will be still some variation.
So if everyone disagrees, how do we know what is ethical, and what isn’t? People generally respond it is common sense, but for anyone who has led a class on ethics, it is apparent how quickly apparent agreement descends into outright hostility.
There are those who point out that our laws are sometimes immoral, such as when we instituted slavery or Jim Crow. But whether we like it or not, our laws represent what we as a society have collectively negotiated through our institutions as our ethical code.
So what does this ethical code tell us about ourselves? There are some obvious values, such as not killing or hurting others. There are some values we have pretty much internalized, but are not necessarily followed in other countries, such as respect for property rights. Indeed, it’s often a surprise to my students when we walk through the fact that many of the ideas that seem commonsensical to them are actually products of the laws we have decided upon, such as the obligation to pay for something when you buy it in a store.
Are we living in a new Gilded Age?
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We love to think of ourselves as a democratic society in which liberty is our fundamental value, and we point to our Founding documents such as the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence as proof of this value. But in fact, the Declaration of Independence is not law. And the Constitution, for all its impressiveness, is essentially a document creating a system of common defense and a common market for the 13 former colonies.
Consider the following. I always ask my students what are the two rights actually guaranteed us in the body of the Constitution. Not the amendments, but the body itself. In other words, what the Framers initially intended to include before other parties provided their input.
The answer is not the right to freedom of speech, or gun ownership, or against self-incrimination. Those are included in the Bill of Rights (which actually, until the 14th amendment passed later, did not protect the rights of individuals, but that is a story for another post). No, the only two rights guaranteed us in the body of the Constitution are the right to property and the right to contract.
In other words, it is an economic document.
This emphasis of economics has been central to our laws. And an outcome of this obsession is the privileging of wealth.
Consider the following. Anna Sorokin, a young Russian woman who conned hundreds of thousands of dollars from the wealthy elites in New York was just sentenced to 4 to 12 years in prison.
The outrage of the New York elites was palpable. Her former friend, Vanity Fair photo editor Rachel Williams, who took Sorokin on an opulent vacation to Marrakesh in 2017, accused Sorokin of stealing the $60,000 Williams spent on the trip. On the stand, Ms. Williams had burst into tears, calling the theft the worst experience of her life.
All the victims of Sorokin’s grift could afford their losses. All of them should have known better. But they bought into a myth Sorokin created about her being a wealthy heiress because they wanted to believe this myth. Sorokin played the part of a wealthy dilettante so well that the actual wealthy dilletantes thought she was one of them.
Contrast Sorokin’s prison sentence to the relative slap on the wrist Felicity Huffman faces for using her wealth to rig the system and deny more qualified, less privileged applicants places at prestigious colleges. Or the lack of any prosecution of the bankers who caused the financial crash in 2007. But these were examples of the wealthy cheating the poor and middle class, something that is a venerated tradition in America.
Especially since 1980, in fact, we have institutionalized this process, with tax policy, non-existent anti-trust enforcement, and weakened unions, all of which are policies that benefit the wealthy to the detriment of everyone else. Huffman might have just gotten a little carried away with her grift.
Sorokin, however, did something unimaginable. She stole from the rich. What’s more is she revealed the vacuity of America’s elites, reveling in their embrace of appearances over substance. What mattered to them is that she told a compelling story they liked, much like how my 4-year old grandson believes in Santa Claus. For this offense, our system deems her worthy of severe punishment.
The differing justice the wealthy receive in contrast with the poor is now a well-told story. What Sorokin did, however, is reveal the complete submission the rest of our society has made to the wealthy. Until everyone else realizes that they have been had, this system won’t change.
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