“You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.”
— Abraham Lincoln (attributed)
The presidential election provided a shocking outcome for our unapologetically biased media. But the sound of the resounding collision between “the people” and the media echoed throughout the world – the “people” have spoken, dramatically.
That symbolically indicates there is still some fight left in the lady enshrined in the Statue of Liberty; in the fervent desire of the “people” for the continuance of constitutional government; in their willingness to demonstrate unabashed patriotism; and in their eager support of the moral values that form the core of our way of life. These values are included in the tenets governing the major faiths of the world as well – Christianity, Judaism, secular Islam, Buddhism and Confucianism.
Confusing to some, especially the young, is that some values are also ideals — aims that society seeks to achieve, or at least move toward, such as justice, equity and fairness. We enact laws in pursuance of ideals – yet laws are not necessarily ideals themselves; they are a means to an end. (See Thurman Arnold’s book The Symbols of Government for further discussion.)
Immature youth become disappointed and angry when they learn that a cherished ideal is not a law, and threaten to intimidate lawful authorities by protesting if their demands are not met. The recent election affords a shining demonstration to these youth, and to their college faculties and administrations, of the use of lawful procedures to achieve legitimate political goals.
One of our most challenging ideals is to achieve equality before the law. Several forks in the road confront us.
One is the treatment of congressional rights and powers in the constant struggle for power between Congress and the executive branch. In practice, the resolution of this tension has depended heavily on the political preferences of judges, with one result being the concentration of power that is now exercised by the executive branch, and a corresponding weakening of legislative power. Given the ideal of separation of power among the branches of government, this result implies that the ideal has not been well-served by our judicial machinery. Youth can provide useful contemplation of this challenge.
The second fork deals with the ideal of equal treatment of individuals, whether corporations or human beings, under the law. Here we encounter another potential path in our thinking. On the one hand we have two parties with conflicting claims against each other; on the other hand, we have the individual facing an all-powerful government.
Judges and court officials strive mightily to implement the ideal of fairness, but know that judicial outcomes depend heavily on the plaintiff/defendant ability to employ skillful lawyers. It is not sufficient to have the law on your side; it is also essential to have the skills to argue your case. Depending on their political leaning, judges can, and do, bend (or break) murky laws to accommodate a financially distressed party from a government complaint.
In an action between a bureaucrat and a business, however, the bureaucrat’s principal motive is to preserve his existing domain of power and, if possible, expand it. The businessman faces an infinitely rich adversary, both in terms of time and financial resources (some of these litigations have lasted for decades). Such intimidating conditions can induce many defendants to settle out of court. Indeed, for bureaucratic operations, lately the settlement procedure has become a way of life. The Bank of America, for example, recently has settled one of its many bureaucratic entanglements for about $300 billion-plus.
Abraham Lincoln left us with an ocean of wisdom, yet we can only share scarcely a spoonful with the reader. To our youth, he would applaud their willingness to succor the needy by aiding private charities, voluntarily, including churches. But he would counsel that, according to current polls, today’s youth have little faith in faith, pun not intended.
He might also advise them on the importance of assuming personal responsibility for their individual well-being; managing their incomes appropriately; respecting private property; being civil; and honoring the accumulated wisdom of their elders.
And one should best interpret the Donald Trump election outcome as a dramatic instance of democracy in action, instead of opting for the dangerous and destructive path of “mobocracy.”
(The writer is a professor emeritus of financial economics at the University of Georgia. He lives in Aiken, S.C.)