Sort by

How Unequal Justice Makes Us Super Cynical

David Callahan

At the heart of the social contract lie three pretty simple propositions: First, that if you work hard and play by the rules, you'll lead a secure life. Second, that everyone gets a say in how the rules are made. And, third, that whoever breaks the rules, however high and might they are, is held accountable.

Of course, this isn't the way things often work in practices these days, which is a big reason Americans are so damn cynical and distrustful of all major institutions. 
The eroding value of work and the subversion of our democracy have both been getting tons of attention lately amid all the talk about inequality. Less attention, though, has been paid to the utter collapse of equal justice amid the growing wealth chasm. So it's great to see a writer of Matt Taibbi's talents out with a new book on this exact topic, The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap.
Taibbi's big contribution here is to put together two seemingly disparate trends: Mass incarceration of Americans at the bottom of the income ladder and the persistent failure to actually lock up those at the top of the ladder who commit huge white-collar crimes. 
Taibbi knows the second half of this story especially well, as the guy who -- among other things -- documented how Goldman Sachs misled investors and then Congress about its actions and was never held to account. 
I've been fulminating about this same stuff for a decade now, ever since I published my book, The Cheating Culture, which looked at how the crimes of the "winning class" go unpunished and then explored these same themes in my book, The Moral Center
While it's useful to talk about unequal justice in terms of wealth, power, and race, my own preference is to talk about this problem through a values lens and to look at how much it contributes to people's lost faith in the social contract. 
For forty years, we've heard endlessly about "personal responsibility," which has been a central theme of conservatives and one that was taken up by centrist Democrats like Bill Clinton. Animated by a devotion to "moral values," a generation of politicians increased the penalties for all sorts of social behaviors: violence, drug use, out-of-wedlock births, drunk driving, and so on. But during this very same period, those very same politicians reduced the penalties for unsavory financial behaviors, such as taking undisclosed risks with other people's money and making loans at usurious rates. 
In short, the political system imposed a new draconian regime to impose more personal responsibility in one sphere, while orchestrating a laissez-faire loosening of standards of individual responsibility in another sphere. 
Americans have responded accordingly to the new incentive structure, improving their social behavior in notable ways while running amok in the financial sphere. The rich have been the worst offenders in this regard, since they've had the most opportunity to exploit the new laxity for personal gain. 
All this makes everyone else super cynical. People think: hey, if the wealthy don't play by the rules, why should I? When the rules seem to have little meaning, people start to make up their own rules. Which is to say that unequal justice can corrupt us all. 
And a simple way to think about the challenge of restoring equal justice is that we need to strive for a single standard of responsibility in all spheres, both social and economic, as well as to greatly expand the way we think about "moral values." As a practical matter, it's time to ease up on the War on the Poor while coming down harder on the people at the top who've been getting a slap on the wrist. 
That doesn't so complicated, does it?