Here in the U.S., there is a scandal: it has been revealed that wealthy people cheat. They paid money – lots of it – to arrange to get their kids into prestigious colleges and universities. The fixers paid bribes, falsified test scores and doctored photos to get the sons and daughters from wealthy families – many from Wall Street and Hollywood – into college on false pretenses.
This has enraged many ordinary families who play by the rules.
But it would not be news in so many countries where corruption, favoritism and use of social status and money knows no bounds. In some countries, even judges are swayed by more than the evidence of right and wrong. As Shakespeare’s King Lear noted: “Plate sin with gold, and the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks. Arm it in rags, a pigmy’s straw does pierce it.”
So what is the cause? Unjust social systems? Wealth itself? Racism and other identity politics sins? Classism? Fear of being left behind?
I would say the underlying cause is bad values.
In large institutions and social systems, organizational norms and practices are important but how they are used by individuals in any given case can make all the difference.
Self-interest is powerful but can be offset by traits of good character.
In the case of those American parents who cheated, it was their superficial values that made them sin. Many American parents today, the children of Baby Boomers, measure themselves by status symbols, not intrinsic goodness. Titles and money, connections and networking, the stuff of aristocratic one-upmanship, as applied to their children offset their insecurities.
The writer Peggy Noonan, who I believe has a keen eye for truth, calls these children “success robots” – morally vacuous, super-insecure, shaped by social media, extensions of their cell phones and computers. She reports that in one elite college, a very high number of students ask for and need psychological services. They are social capital basket cases being given entry to the American elite. They had been raised to be shallow and to see others just as commodities. Useless narcissism from one generation passed on to the next.
The challenge before America, then, is not a system of economics but a system of socialism – the socialization making for parental insecurity. It’s ironic that it exists so prevalently among the wealthy and the already socially powerful.
But again, where inculcation of good values is concerned, Lord Acton may have had the last word: “Power tends to corrupt. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”