Special treatment for the powerful?
By Scott Sumner
Should powerful people be treated differently? Should they get special treatment? Should their bad behavior be more easily excused? It seems to me that there are two arguments to consider:
1. Decisions made by powerful people are more consequential for all of us.
2. Societies operate more effectively if there is an egalitarian sense of solidarity.
With the first argument, one might want to excuse occasional bad behavior, as there could be a great cost to replacing a powerful person with someone less skilled. Here you might think of the famous case of General Patton slapping a soldier suffering from shell shock, or General McArthur’s attempt to undercut Truman’s authority in Korea. Neither is a perfect example of this dilemma, but in both cases these two issues come into play to some extent.
Another example is presidential scandals. I’ve seen several examples in my lifetime that would have led to the individual being fired from his job if he were less powerful. This sense of the leader being above the law is of course much more pronounced in less developed countries, or in pre-modern times in the West.
One can also find some evidence of the solidarity principle at work. US presidents earn a salary of $400,000. While that is well above a middle class salary, it’s still a sum that average people can visualize–perhaps they know a doctor or lawyer with that income–unlike the eight figure salaries of top corporate executives. This may be society’s way of making the president seem less special.
On the other hand, the US president receives a “total compensation” that is arguably the highest on Earth. He lives in the best house, has the best transport, the best bodyguards, the most deferential servants, dinner parties with the most distinguished guests, etc. Even Jeff Bezos can’t easily replicate that consumption bundle.
At first glance, it might seem like the utilitarian position would be to provide special treatment to the powerful, as their decisions are so consequential. In fact, all good arguments are utilitarian arguments. Countries with a high degree of social cohesion and solidarity tend to do better in terms of governance. A place like Denmark is less likely to offer special treatment to its leaders than the Congo or Syria, and more likely to be better governed. That fact is also of relevance to utilitarians.
I suspect there are no hard and fast rules here, which apply in every single case. As a general principle, there are some clear social benefits to creating a society where each person is viewed as having equal value, and no one is exempt from the rules. On the other hand, there may be individual cases where applying this principle strictly means that society is shooting itself in the foot.
It’s sort of like torture. Have a general rule against torture, but if there’s a ticking nuclear bomb in NYC . . .