Representative government requires trust – above all, trust that everyone, king and commoner alike, is equal in the eyes of the law and “the system” – and everyone follows more or less the same rules.
But we’re not doing that anymore. Marc Rich scammed people, and got pardoned for being a Democrat bigwig; Bill Clinton did things that would have gotten a dozen Republicans like Bob Packwood thrown out of Congress; Hillary’s email server issue alone is vastly bigger than the transgression that destroyed David Petraeus’ career (to say nothing of the passive-aggressive institutional arrogance protecting her). And Obama? From nominating a budget chief who owed enough taxes to get a dozen mere middle class mortals jailed, to an Obamacare consultant that tittered like a pajamaboy about lying to the rubes about the costs of the program, to changing the rules and running around the Legislative Branch when Obamacare went up on the rocks, to the lies about the Iran deal, Obama has trampled the rules in a way no citizen ever could ream about.
And as Glenn Reynolds notes in one of his most scathing commentaries ever, that’s a problem, if we care about the kind of society we plan to have:
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.
Try life in Romania, Somalia or the Congo if you don’t believe it. Get back to us on that.
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 likeWayne 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?
How long can a society stay free without trust? It’s not like trust goes underground or anything…