By Ron Formisano
Many Americans believe there is one law for the rich and one for the poor, and that — from Wall Street to Lexington — white-collar crime pays. Recent courtroom decisions here serve to encourage this perception.
But widespread cynicism that we have the best justice system money can buy has a long history and many sources in contemporary America. My own bouts of skepticism began about the time Gerald Ford, an un-elected president, after one month in office, pardoned the nearly impeached Richard Nixon on the grounds that he had "suffered enough."
About that time, I became aware of the moral philosophy of the great French intellectual and activist Simone Weil (1909-1943), one of the foremost ethical and spiritual thinkers of the 20th century.
Although plagued by poor health, Weil wrote voluminously, taught philosophy, campaigned for workers' rights and worked in a factory incognito for a year. Although a pacifist, in 1936 she fought on the Republican side in the Spanish civil war.
Born a Jew, she became interested in all religions, especially Christianity, but regarded all religions as "true." While working in the French Resistance to the Nazis in England in 1943, she died of tuberculosis.
Weil's reflections on justice and punishment are relevant to our time.
Contrary to what prevails in courts around the country, Weil believed those persons elected or appointed to positions of authority thereby entailed almost sacred obligations to society and their fellow human beings.
She held that the greater the authority and power held by individuals, if they committed crimes, then the greater should be their punishment. Punishment for breaking obligations, she wrote, should be designed to compel "a higher devotion to the public good. The severity of the punishment must be in keeping with the kind of obligation which has been violated." Thus, the greater the violation of public trust, the greater the punishment.
But in contemporary America, punishment remains unrelated to violation of obligations or to the degree of harm done to society. Petty criminals go to jail, but wealthy and powerful executives who cause massive misery get to enjoy immense wealth gained at disastrous social cost.
Does anyone expect to see executives of BP or Transocean (the drilling contractor) in handcuffs and wearing yellow jumpsuits? How many swindlers from Lehmann Brothers or Goldman Sachs will do a perp walk?
In the 17th century, the English adventurer Sir Walter Raleigh, who preyed on Spanish treasure ships, admitted to the lord chancellor that he would have captured the entire Spanish fleet if he had found it, even without the queen's permission.
Well then, said the chancellor, you would have been a pirate. "Oh," said Raleigh, "did you ever know of any that were pirates for millions? They that risk for small things are pirates."
Realism leads us to expect Raleigh's perspective, and not Weil's philosophy of justice, will continue to guide our courts.
Ron Formisano, a University of Kentucky professor of history, is a former Herald-Leader contributing columnist.