The only security which we can have that men will be honest, is to make it their interest to be honest; and the best defence which we can have against their being knaves, is to make it terrible to them to be knaves. As there are many men wicked in some stations, who would be innocent in others; the best way is to make wickedness unsafe in any station.”—Cato’s letter
This is one of the great challenges of imposing the rule of law: holding powerful people accountable. As a Vox article pointed out this week, it’s possible Trump won’t pay any penalty for colluding with Russia to rig the election. President Ford pardoned Nixon’s crimes. Obama refused to prosecute American torturers. Like the song says, if you’re rich you can buy immunity, if you’re poor better write your eulogy.
It’s not just the government of course. Fox News spent millions ensuring Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly were safe in their station. Churches cover up for religious leaders. Michigan University covered up allegations against gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar. The most anyone usually suffers is to lose their job; massive falls such as Bill Cosby or Harvey Weinstein are rare.
And it’s not just sex. The GOP has denounced a lot of the neo-Nazis crawling out of the woodwork to run on their ticket, but it’s staying mum about veteran legislator Steve King’s white supremacist tweeting.
This isn’t new. In the Skinner case that ended the eugenics movement (though lots of states continued sterilizing people they didn’t want reproducing), what led the Supreme Court to rule against Oklahoma was that the mandatory sterilization of criminals exempted the kind of white-collar crime the state legislature or its poker buddies might be found doing (bribery, corruption). It was for the lower classes, not them.
It’s one reason why law is important: it doesn’t completely stop people breaking it, but it does draw a line in the sand they have to cross. Alan Greenspan actively pushed for loosening controls on banks, which contributed to the disastrous financial meltdown of a decade ago. In the aftermath, Greenspan said it had never occurred to him that the banks would make such terrible decisions if they weren’t constrained.
But of course, if people don’t prosecute those who break the law, the law has its limits. And there’s lots of reasons not to go after powerful people: they have money, influence, voters won’t like it.
What do we do to make them more accountable? And to make breaking the law something that will actually cost them? Trump is an extreme example, but he’s not unique.