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There’s a Price to Pay for Public Trust
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There’s a Price to Pay for Public Trust

Crimes that corrupt our institutions don’t just hurt the people who are directly involved.

The Internal Revenue Service building in Washington, D.C, on February 2, 2024. (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

Charles Littlejohn, the corrupt IRS contractor who leaked thousands of confidential tax records to the New York Times and ProPublica, has received the maximum available sentence under law, which is five years in prison. It is a pity there wasn’t a heavier sentence available. In a self-respecting society that valued its institutions, an abuse of the public trust such as Littlejohn’s would be met with the kind of unyielding rigor and energy that we currently waste on marijuana smugglers and little old ladies who sometimes stab a guy to death with a sword cane in a bar fight in suburban Philadelphia. 

(I used to live nearly on top of—and, if we’re being totally honest, effectively inside—that pub, which was called Annie’s at the time.)

I’m not saying we should go easy on little old ladies’ sword-cane homicides, not by any means—but: a homicide like the one mentioned above is basically a private offense, in the sense that it doesn’t implicate any very important public issue other than the general public interest in good order and the long-cherished but never-to-be-realized dream of homicide-free Irish pubs in the general vicinity of Philadelphia. Abusing the vast investigatory powers entrusted to the IRS is, from a public point of view, a much more consequential matter, as are things like Medicare fraud and enticing goober police chiefs into your scheme to make an end-run around federal machine-gun regulations.

A murder or an assault hurts one person, with rippling effects on his or her family and community. These are serious matters. But crimes that corrupt our institutions not only hurt the people who are directly involved but also undermine our ability to use those institutions to deal with those more ordinary kinds of crime with private victims. That’s why corrupt cops and politicians, the January 6 insurrectionists, and the lawyers who tried to help Donald Trump give some phony-baloney legal color to his attempted coup d’état ought, in my mind, to be punished a lot more harshly than some idjit trying to float a few kilos of Bolivian marching powder into Miami on a speedboat. 

In spite of my growing conviction that Americans don’t actually know what to do with liberty and have somehow managed to abandon the moral power for handling it, I remain at heart a legalize-most-of-the-things guy: If people want to snort cocaine or gamble away their paychecks or engage in prostitution, then I’ll gladly give you three essays, two anecdotes, and one sermon about why these things are not good for you, your family, or your community—why some old fuddy-duddy types might go as far as to call these things wrong—but I’m not much inclined to stick a gun in somebody’s face when it comes to the sort of thing that used to be investigated by what once were called “vice squads,” a now-dusty phrase redolent of Mickey Spillane novels and L.A. Confidential. And, not being very interested in sticking a gun in anybody’s face over those things, I’m not much inclined to deputize somebody else to stick a gun in somebody’s face over it, which is, in the end, what all government action is: force backed by violence. 

Some people bristle when I write that all government action in the end is violence (which comprehends the threat of violence), but there isn’t anything necessarily pejorative in the statement: There are lots of horrible things in this world that are worth sticking a gun in somebody’s face over, and lots of things that aren’t—learning to tell one from the other is called statesmanship. It wasn’t persuasion that freed the slaves and whipped Hitler—it was violence. It wasn’t persuasion that kept the USSR from annexing Western Europe—it was the credible threat of violent dissuasion.

That being stipulated, let me reiterate this: I don’t mean only that acts of official corruption and acts that abuse the public trust should be punished more severely than so-called “victimless crimes” (I am not convinced “victimless crimes” actually exist in any meaningful way) but also more severely than ordinary crimes that are obviously not victimless: A bar fight may end in death, but the worst bar fight you can imagine is less of a threat to the public order—which is to say, less a threat to our liberty—than is even a relatively venial case of corruption. The moral borders, like the literal borders, need policing—and, as with the borders on the map, our governments do a relatively poor job of enforcing the borders on the moral map. That isn’t just a failure by people in government, of course—the people of New Jersey knew what Bob Menendez was when they elected him, and the people of the United States knew what Donald Trump was when they elected him. They know even better this time around. 

Littlejohn’s leak of IRS records was aimed mostly at very wealthy people, Donald Trump and Jeff Bezos among them. Other IRS leaks have targeted Democrats’ political enemies, such as the National Organization for Marriage, to which the IRS was obliged to pay a settlement after leaking the identities of the group’s donors in order to enable political retaliation against them. For some reason, Barack Obama’s Justice Department never got around to prosecuting the NOM case. Or the case of the IRS director lying to Congress about targeting conservative political groups, or … 

One of the big problems with Americans’ lack of trust in government agencies is that this lack of trust is not unwarranted; the conspiracy theories all reimagine the sordid stories as something more cinematic—Satanists, pedophiles, vast corporate conspiracies spanning decades and continents, etc.—while the actual troubling events are not very difficult to comprehend, provided you can get over how boring the facts of real-world corruption usually are. That agencies such as the IRS tend to regard the enemies of the Democratic Party as their own enemies is the result of a set of incentives that are, I trust, too obvious to require explanation here. The United States isn’t the only country in which the national bureaucracy has a very strong tilt toward one particular political party. It is so normal that we hardly even notice it: You’ll recall that the education bureaucracy’s case against Betsy DeVos when she was nominated to be secretary of education was, in effect, that Democratic Party-aligned views are the only views that are permissible to a secretary of education. As though the preferences of the bureaucracy not only should be seen as normative but should also supercede the preferences of the voters who elected the corrupt imbecile who appointed DeVos, and a (very) few other decent patriotic people, to office. 

What real-world corruption looks like isn’t Conspiracy Theory Larry’s take on the supposed antics of the United Fruit Company in Guatemala way back when—it’s usually a lot more like Claudine Gay. The former Harvard president did wrong and lots of it—no, she didn’t break the law, or at least hasn’t been seriously accused of any criminal wrongdoing, but there are all sorts of ways to do wrong that are perfectly legal. Claudine Gay’s actions were a combination of laziness, careerism, a gigantically swollen sense of personal entitlement, and a not entirely unreasonable conviction that she could do whatever she wanted without ever being held to account because she had the power and—this part is important—because she was righteous in her cause. The IRS leakers believed that they’d probably get away with it—because people like them usually do—but they also believed that they should get away with it, that their abuses of the public trust were undertaken in the service of justice, that they had to break the law in order to bring attention to the unfairness of U.S. tax policy (our tax system is in fact enormously progressive and the high-income pay an enormously disproportionate share of federal income taxes—far more disproportionate than their share of income—but never mind the facts!) or to embarrass the nefarious allies of those awful bigots who advocated … the same one-man/one-woman view of marriage that Barack Obama espoused when he was elected president in 2008. 

There is a price to pay for occupying a position of public trust—and here I do not mean only an official position in government but all positions of public trust, whether that is the president of Harvard or the president of the Teamsters or the executive director of the ACLU. This being The Dispatch, you’ll have heard a version of this many times directly or indirectly from Yuval Levin (PBUH), but you give up something—or, at least, you subordinate something—of your personal autonomy and your personal ambition when you attach yourself to an institution, because the institution has its own priorities, goals, means, and norms that are particular to it and distinct from the personal interests of the people who staff the institution. You don’t have to give up your own political opinions or preferences or values to work for the IRS—or the English department—but you do have to honor the institution’s purpose and its character in your role as an institutional actor, which, at the very least, means not using the IRS as a political weapon or using your Victorian lit class as a forum for political indoctrination or as an opportunity to ideologically bully teenagers. Ironically, it is the smallest kind of person who cannot recognize anything bigger than himself, the least consequential kind of person who cannot subordinate himself to a more consequential good. And it doesn’t help that all of the cultural and political energy of our time—whipped into a frenzy by social media and the cultural habits adjacent to it—are dedicated to inculcating in the most ignorant and least thoughtful people among us the hysterical conviction that there simply is nothing more important than what they are feeling right now about the morning’s headlines, that we live in a state of constant and urgent emergency, that every Taylor Swift tweet is the moral equivalent of war.

A thoughtful, intelligent, patriotic person with a sense of duty might share Elizabeth Warren’s view of tax policy or Bernie Sanders’ view of so-called economic inequality and at the same time understand that the nation needs a functioning tax agency that can be trusted—that deserves to be trusted—by people who have radically different political opinions and cultural allegiances. That person would do his job—the other kind chooses instead to abuse his position. 

And the kind who abuses his position is the kind I want to see breaking rocks in the hot sun. 

Iron-Fist Libertarianism

I sometimes describe myself as an “Eisenhower anarchist,” meaning that, as a matter of philosophy, I have a lot of sympathy for radical libertarians—the anarcho-capitalists and the minarchists and the guys who believe in their heart of hearts that Milton Friedman is the wrong Friedman for libertarians to be looking to for advice. But politics isn’t philosophy, and when it comes to actual politics—which, though Republicans may be shocked to hear it, requires working out things in the real world with people who have ideas and interests of their own—I’m basically an Eisenhower Republican, suspicious of enthusiasm and of ideological excitement, very interested in i-dotting and t-crossing, careful, moderate, interested in consensus and compromise not because consensus and compromise are what nice people do to show how nice they are but because these are the blocks out of which political stability is built. But a recent conversation, related to the first section of this newsletter, brought to mind another formulation I’ve sometimes played with: iron-fist libertarianism. 

In short, what I mean by that is that while we want to cut a very broad swath for voluntary human activity and cooperation, the things we do want to prohibit—the things on the wrong side of the harm principle—should be treated seriously, that our disinclination to criminalize many things should not incline us much to indulgence when it comes to those things we do want to criminalize. Think of it as a point of view holding that there isn’t any inconsistency in saying that you can smoke meth if you want to but we’ll flog you for littering. To me, that seems like nothing other than treating adults as though they were adults: whole and complete, fully functional, and morally answerable human beings. 

Many Americans of my generation will remember the case of Michael Fay, the American teenager who was sentenced to caning in Singapore in 1994 for vandalizing cars. We were supposed to be shocked by this; my own reaction at the time was that if he’d been caught spray-painting somebody’s Chevy short-wide in Lubbock, Texas, he’d probably have gotten more than four strokes with a cane from a very professional Singaporean bureaucrat. The last I heard about Michael Fay, he was in trouble for a string of predictably idiotic crimes and misadventures: He accidentally set himself on fire huffing butane and was charged (though not in every case convicted) with a bunch of things related to drugs, alcohol, and reckless driving. A grade-A scion of the American upper-middle class, in other words. His grandparents were Holocaust survivors, and his parents were schmucks—that is the great alchemy of American life. I think about him from time to time. I’m not very much into tough-guy stuff—some of you may remember that I spent many years as a Manhattan-based theater critic, which ain’t exactly a tour with special forces in terms of tough-guy cred—but, at the same time, I can’t help but sometimes think that a guy like Michael Fay might have been better off if he’d got a worse beating than the one he suffered.

Michael Fay is one illustrative specimen; another is the now-grown man who was the naked baby on the Nevermind cover and has been trying to extract money out of the Nirvana catalog claiming that the album art amounted to child pornography. Still another is the set of Trumpy doofuses on (what used to be) Twitter getting their man-panties over their heads about Taylor Swift and that football player she’s dating. You don’t have to be Charles Dickens or David Foster Wallace to see how all of those seemingly separate plotlines come together to form, in their banal tangle, a compelling story about American life in our time. If the class of Americans historically dominated by affluent white Protestant men is anxious about being displaced at the top of the great American heap, its members sure as hell aren’t making much of a case that they belong there. Not recently, anyway. 

The Desire to Punish

I am aware that the newsletter sounds a little vindictive this week! Just an accident of my reading, I think, and of the news. In 2015, I wrote a little essay titled “The Desire to Punish,” and I think it still reads pretty well. It begins:

We were warned not to meddle too deeply into God’s business: Eve and the knowledge of good and evil, judge not lest ye be judged, the Pharisee of Luke 18:11 who “prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican.’” But it was Eve who made us fully human (o, felix culpa!), her adventuring with the forbidden fruit transforming mankind from a creature merely made in the image of God to one sharing in His distinctive quality: Knowing good and evil, we are obliged to pass judgment. We are called upon to do acts of mercy, but we also are called upon to do justice, which is not only feeding the poor and caring for the widow but also ensuring that they are protected from those who would do violence to them. We must punish. Knowing good and knowing evil, we take up the burden of both. Perhaps the non-believers will find as much truth in that as those on the kneelers.

The duty to punish is distinct from the desire to punish. Consider the now-abandoned but eminently civilized custom of the executioner begging the condemned for his forgiveness before chopping off his head, a humane recognition of the fact that what is transpiring is not between two men but between a man and mankind, or at least the portion of it that forms the polity around him. There’s something in that redolent of the old Chuck Jones cartoon with Ralph E. Wolf and Sam Sheepdog, who greet each other with courteous familiarity on the way to work in the morning, punch the time clock, spend the morning trying to murder each other, clock out, chat amicably over their lunch break, clock back in, and spend the afternoon trying to murder each other before parting as friendly colleagues at day’s end. Fans of American Sniper have taken to heart the film’s now-famous monolog on wolves, sheep, and sheepdogs, and there is a certain fatalism to it: that we are what we are, that like wolves and sheep and sheepdogs we are simply, as the theologian Lady Gaga put it, “Born This Way.”

Our progressive friends accept “Born This Way” for exactly one category of human inclinations: those related to venereal enthusiasms. When it comes to sexual taste, our progressive friends are all Sir Francis Galton, writing disquisitions on hereditary fabulousness. But they resist well-founded scientific accounts of the biological basis of human intelligence and its heritability. Conservatives, who in spite of their recent ghastly experiments with populism have not entirely lost their instinct for hierarchy, are in the main perfectly comfortable with a “Born This Way” account of intelligence. But delve too deeply into questions about which other aspects of human interior life may also be biological, hereditary, and effectively immutable, and you will start to encounter some resistance.

Partly this is religious, and not in the narrow sense of this or that theological school of this or that Christian denomination, but in the very broadest sense of the shared American metaphysics: We are great believers in free will. Without free will, a great deal of American civic rhetoric is difficult to support, and a very narrow conception of human agency must challenge our views on the truth of certain truths we have long held to be self-evident. Democratic processes do not shine so brightly if we are all doomed to act out deeply ingrained tribal affiliations, and there is no such thing as a meritocracy when merit is just another lottery.

When I try to explain how Washington really works to be people who don’t know much about it, the main thing I want them to understand is that while there is some corruption, some self-serving, some stupidity, and some incompetence in government, the truly terrifying fact is that most people in Washington are smart, honest, and dedicated—and this is the best they can do

And so it is outside of the Beltway, too. 

In Other News …

Thanks for all your kind responses last week. I have been duly reminded that London Calling was a double-album. Maybe I should have chosen Combat Rock, but that would have been controversial. Some people disputed that Sandinista! is the best Clash album. 

Well, if you want to fight over something, here’s another: I Against I is the best rock album ever made. 

Economics for English Majors

I used to work for a big publicly traded newspaper company largely owned by a single investment fund, and both the company and the fund were mostly run by guys who didn’t know very much about the newspaper business. The top guys at my company were all accountants, which you’d think would mean that at least they’d be good at counting money, but they weren’t. I could tell you stories—and I will: One example that stands out in memory is that in the early days of digital cameras, I suggested that we buy some, which would save us a good deal of money. Great idea, the boss said, put together a proposal. I did, and he did what guys like him do—he scoffed at my numbers and insisted that he could put together a better deal. This was for a purchase in the low-tens-of-thousands-of-dollars range. And he did put together a deal that came in lower than mine by something like $9,000, after a delay of 18 months or so, during which we spent something like $300,000 on expenses related to film photography. (Because the company was indeed run by idiots, we’d closed down our darkroom and were sending film out to a commercial processor for development, which was bananas.) The CEO was a guy who talked like he’d just rewatched Glengarry Glen Ross for the 93rd time, and the executive team somehow managed to make a money-losing company out of a group of newspapers that, one by one, mostly made money—some of them a lot of money.

“Those bastards,” one of my employees used to say, “they don’t care about anything except money.” That wasn’t true—the C-level executives cared a great deal, for example, about whether their kids’ lacrosse-team pictures were in the newspaper, whether they could get us to write puff pieces about friends with political or social ambitions, etc. I’ve worked for publishers of all kinds, and the kind that mostly just cares about making money is the easiest kind to work for. The social-climbers and good ol’ boys and would-be politicians are an absolute pain in the ass. 

There have been a lot of layoffs and business-side unhappiness in the media world of late. People sometimes ask me about media companies’ business models. I once was involved in starting a conservative-leaning daily newspaper in Philadelphia—in the early 21st century, no less—so I am something of an expert on failed business models in the media world. The Messenger, which started off with $50 million and had 300 employees at the end, collapsed last week after eight months. The Messenger was founded by Jimmy Finkelstein, a guy who inherited money and loves the media business (he once owned The Hill), the kind of guy who invariably ends up in West Palm Beach. The Messenger was—as a million people already have observed—based on a business model that is a pretty well-documented failure in our time, i.e., commodity eyeballs, simply trying to maximize traffic and monetize it at a rate of some fraction of a penny per view. It was a dumb model back when more or less every newspaper company in the free world adopted it as its digital strategy back in the 1990s and early 2000s, the kind of thing that appeals to half-bright accountants who fell—and still fall—for the illusion of free money. But back then, the suits at least had the excuse of not yet knowing for a fact what a dumb model it was. It is really, really difficult to make money while giving away the product—even the porn industry has discovered that.

There’s a wonderful bit in Citizen Kane when the great newspaperman is informed by his stuffy business adviser that his company lost $1 million in the past year. “At the rate of a million a year, we’ll have to close this place,” he says, smiling, “in 60 years.” As a newspaper guy myself, the exchange is a thrilling one to me, but, as I have advised more than one aspiring publisher over the years, a newspaper can lose a lot of money very quickly. I don’t think Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post because he thought it would be a big money-maker—he’s that other kind of publisher, the kind who relishes being in Vogue—but even Bezos, occasionally the wealthiest man in the world, eventually cries “uncle!” The Los Angeles Times, which other than having Jonah Goldberg’s column is an absurdly bad newspaper unworthy of this country’s second-largest and arguably most-interesting city, has been losing more than $30 million a year and just laid off a fifth of its editorial staff. Sports Illustrated, which used to have some of the best writing in American journalism in addition to its famous swimsuit covers, is circling the drain. Digital media doesn’t have the gigantic financial burden of printing and distributing a physical product with a shelf-life measured in hours, but digital media can lose money just as fast as dead-tree media can. That is the lesson of the time, anyway.

I’m not going to turn this into a Dispatch subscriber pitch other than to note that subscription-based publications such as ours have very good incentives to prioritize good journalism over clicks and commodity eyeballs, because we are trying to establish relationships with readers that last for years rather than (at most) minutes. That may look like an old-fashioned kind of Victorian courtship in the devil’s whorehouse that is the current political-media world, but I think it’s probably good business. I like the example of Surfer’s Journal, which has such good photography and picaresque stories that a non-surfer such as myself will occasionally pick up a copy—at a newsstand price of $25 per issue, which goes all the way down to $16 a copy if you get a subscription. That’s a lot of money for one issue of a magazine, even a beautiful one, which imposes certain limitations, and Surfer’s Journal is probably never going to have a big splashy funding round and a nine-figure valuation. It just does what it does and charges what it charges, and readers—enough readers—seem to be okay with that. Nothing wrong with that: The market is big enough for Taco Bell and Le Bernardin both. I’m not saying it is simple or easy, but there’s an aspect that is simple if not easy: Produce content that is worth what you are asking for it—unless what you are asking is $0.00, because even free content costs time to consume and competes with a million other possible uses for readers’ daily minutes. 

Words About Words

You’ll notice in this letter that I use both venal and venial, words that sometimes are confused by, among others, yr obdt crrspndt. Venal, which comes from a Latin word meaning something that is for sale (the same root as vendor), means susceptible to bribery or inclined toward acts of petty corruption; venial, from a Latin word meaning forgiveness, denotes a forgivable sin, a relatively minor one. You can see how the meaning of one might seem to bleed into the other. 

In Other Wordiness … 

A craze, you say? From the New York Times on celibacy: “It’s this year’s hottest mental health craze.” The funny thing is, we do live in a time when the words “mental-health craze” make perfect sense together.

In Other News …

You know who doesn’t have “big, powerful hands”? 

A few days after the United Auto Workers endorsed President Biden for re-election, former President Donald J. Trump raged at the union’s leader, Shawn Fain, on Sunday night.

Mr. Trump wrote on his social media platform that Mr. Fain “is selling the Automobile Industry right into the big, powerful, hands of China.”

I don’t pretend to know the inner politics of the UAW, but I have a hard time imagining why an old-school union boss would stick his neck out for a blubbering and unreliable princess like Donald Trump when he can get exactly the same stupid anti-trade policies from Joe Biden, who belongs to the party that old-school union bosses traditionally have trusted to look after their interests, no matter how venal or corrupt they might be. The Democrats have been in favor of subjecting the U.S. economy to political regimentation for a very long time, while Republicans are relatively new to the game. Why go in for half-assed amateur corporatism when the genuine article is on offer?


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In Closing

I’m not going to write about the growing family too much, though I do plan to do one longer piece about the experience of the triplet pregnancy and all the interesting things that got wrapped up in it. But here’s a thought: When I ask somebody what they like about living in a big city such as New York, in about seven cases out of 10, the first thing that comes out of their mouths is restaurants. I like a nice lunch out with friends as much as the next guy, and a really good hotel breakfast is a real pleasure, but the presence of fashionable restaurants has always seemed to me a damned peculiar thing to order one’s life around, a sign that something is amiss. 

(New York and Washington both have a lot of very fine restaurants, but there’s much more interesting food in Houston and Los Angeles. That being stipulated, the box from Barney Greengrass that recently landed chez Williamson delighted my formerly Upper West Side-dwelling wife. There can be only one Sturgeon King.) 

Big cities and metros do, however, offer a lot of desirable things, one of which—perhaps inadequately appreciated by the young and the young at heart and middle-aged guys who try not to think about the subject too much—is splendid resources when it comes to health care. With all due respect to the country doctors of the world, the drop-off in the quality and options when it comes to health care is astounding if you compare Dallas or Boston or Miami to rural and small-town America, something that becomes immediately prominent in the mind when your wife is pregnant with triplets and the doctors start saying bad-sounding words you don’t understand. I suppose that 97 days out of 100, I’d rather be in Terlingua, but if I have any more children—and why stop now?—they’ll be born in Dallas.

Kevin D. Williamson is national correspondent at The Dispatch and is based in Virginia. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 15 years as a writer and editor at National Review, worked as the theater critic at the New Criterion, and had a long career in local newspapers. He is also a writer in residence at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. When Kevin is not reporting on the world outside Washington for his Wanderland newsletter, you can find him at the rifle range or reading a book about literally almost anything other than politics.