In their deep distrust of one another, the Americans look for some mechanism that can preserve social equilibrium and public decency in the face of the vanity, greed, and lust for power of individuals and organizations. But society has no automatic thermostat and will never devise one. The nation—any nation—holds together because enough people share and implement an understanding of what is permissible and what has to be done. Absent that will, constitutional checks and balances, independent commissions, bureaucratic procedures, automatic penalties, referenda, and similar gear automatically fail. Indeed, the selective implementation of rigid and impractical laws is an excellent way for unscrupulous political groups to persecute their enemies and extort campaign contributions from potential targets. No nation has stronger laws against corruption than Italy.
Both the Iraq prison abuse investigations and this week’s settlement of the Halliburton accounting fraud case underline the principle that justice isn’t an automatic device. In the former instance, it has already become clear that the military tribunals are being used to protect general officers by limiting accountability to low-level personnel. In the Halliburton case, a large fine was imposed because the company secretly changed the way it reported profits in order to pump up stock prices. Despite the fact that the largest single beneficiary of this scheme was the CEO, whose already enormous pay package was inflated by performance bonuses he did not honestly earn, the FCC did not hold Mr. Cheney liable, however. In effect, Halliburton stockholders got screwed twice, once by the future vice president and then again when the fine got paid out of corporation assets, thus lowering the value of the company. Apparently government agencies are simply not going to prosecute their bosses except in those cases where public pressure makes it expedient to sacrifice somebody, but public pressure would have to be organized by the media, another group full of men and women of convenient principle.
At this point in American history, it’s easy to believe that it would take more than 50,000 gallons of lighter fluid in an abandoned gold mine to provide a detector sensitive enough to register a particle of integrity in our public life. In fact, I believe that things would be very much worse were it not for the largely invisible effect of thousands of individuals doing the right thing in a conspiracy so secret that the conspirators themselves are hardly conscious of it. In the Legends of the Jews we read that God allows the world to persist because of the existence of ten good men. I’m more optimistic than the rabbis—or more matter of fact. I think that, as a plain matter of the physics of the situation, civil society and government function as well as they do, not because of mechanical laws and simple feedback loops, but because of the shared, tacit understanding of what needs to be done. It isn’t that ten wholly good men must exist somewhere, but that there is enough fractional rationality in enough of us fallible men to hold the world together. When that mediocre but foundational virtue weakens at the margins because of an incremental increase in the cowardice of individuals, the rule of law doesn’t work and nations decline. Conversely, if more of us, especially more of those of us who have power and privilege, find a little more courage to do what we know we should, things will get better.