Last week, with double whammy of the Paul Manafort (under)sentencing and the college admissions scandal, there was a lot of chatter about the fall of elites (not that they were ever so uplifted to start with) and the possibly terminal of the rule of law. If we ever get around to restoring something approximating the rule of law, we must accept that one reaction will be ethical and legal whattaboutism. Here’s what I mean, using Manafort as an example (boldface mine):
When Paul Manafort’s lawyers pressed their case for leniency in court on Wednesday, they made the argument that everyone knew about Paul Manafort’s malfeasance—and therefore, how bad could it possibly be? They pointed to the fact he met repeatedly with top government officials to kibitz about his clients in the government of Ukraine. (I wrote about such meetings in my profile of Manafort.) Obviously, those government officials knew him to be a lobbyist. So, really, what’s the harm of his failing to register as required by the Foreign Agents Registration Act?
In fact, the lawyers had a point. Manafort is being sent to prison for crimes that are systemic, hardly hidden, and usually elicit little more than a yawn or shrug. According to a Justice Department report in 2016, there had been seven prosecutions for failure to comply with FARA since 1966. What makes this figure so galling is how many eminent ex-government officials have served as “strategic advisers” to dictatorial governments.
In other words, why Manafort? (other than his being a contempible shitstain) Why not all those other corrupt lobbyists? Now consider the college admissions fraud scandal. As several #MeToo assailants have learned, professional actresses make devastatingly effective witnesses. Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman will have excellent representation and will likely play the Concerned Mom act very effectively: they just wanted what was best for their kids (which is true). They too can argue that they are just the unlucky ones–according to some reports, over 700 students were affected by this scam (I write affected, as it appears in many cases, the students were unaware this was happening). While I’m focusing on Loughlin and Huffman, most, if not all, of the people caught up in this appear, outwardly, to be ‘good people’: they’re accomplished, they probably do some community work, and so on.
Above all, it appears capricious: why should these people be punished when others are not? That’s the problem when the rule of law disintegrates. When you begin to restore it, it will never appear to be applied equally or fairly. But that cruelty, that hardness is what it will take to restore a bit more equality to the Republic.
And it’s something we absolutely must do.