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
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
“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
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
In the news and before Congressional committee, 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 one’s 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.
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