The hypocrites’ club
Mar 13th 2008From The Economist print edition
Now with a new diamond-level member
ELIOT SPITZER is a hard man to defend. He was the most self-righteous politician in America—which is saying something—and an arrogant bully with it. If anybody deserves the opprobrium that is being poured on his head this week, following theNew York Times‘s revelation that he has a taste for expensive prostitutes, then it is Mr Spitzer.
As New York’s attorney-general, he perfected the art of threatening Wall Street types with criminal prosecution unless they paid huge settlements; as New York’s governor, he tried to drive a steamroller over anybody who got in his way, and consequently proved a big disappointment after taking office last year following a landslide victory. Even before his spectacular fall this week, his governorship seemed badly damaged. His promises to clean up Albany politics had borne no fruit and his proposal to give illegal immigrants driving licences had exploded in his face. He leaves plans for congestion charging in New York City up in the air, along with the state budget. A man who liked nothing more than braying about “betrayals of the public trust” and “shocking” and “criminal” behaviour has admitted to the former and may be charged with the latter.
Mr Spitzer had no interest in the distinction between “public” and “private”. He prosecuted “prostitution rings” as vehemently as he fought other forms of crime. His aides circulated unfounded allegations that Richard Grasso, who was the head of the New York Stock Exchange and one of Mr Spitzer’s many bugbears, was sleeping with his secretary.
It is hardly surprising, then, that the country is enjoying a fit ofSpitzenfreude—and that Wall Street’s trading floors are decorated with photoshopped pictures of him cavorting with bodacious babes in various states of undress. Some people have even attributed the markets’ mid-week bounce to glee over Mr Spitzer, rather than to the $200 billion shovelled their way by the Fed.
But distaste for Mr Spitzer—or keen pleasure in seeing a hypocrite hoist with his own petard—should blind no one to the fact that the whole affair is a crock of nonsense. What business is it of the federal government what Mr Spitzer got up to in Room 871 of the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, DC?
Defenders of America’s tough laws on prostitution argue that it goes hand-in-glove with many other forms of crime (sex-trafficking, drug-trafficking, gangsterism). But surely this is an argument for focusing on those heinous crimes rather than trying to prevent an activity that is as old as human society. Besides, if prostitution were not criminalised, the victims of such abuses would feel much less wary of going to the police about them.
America, of course, is not the only country that produces spectacles like the one enjoyed this week. The British tabloids like nothing more than catching a politician with his trousers down (though British headline-writers would be sacked for such feeble offerings as “New York’s Naked Emperor”, from the New York Post). But America manages to be more unbalanced than other countries. This is partly because its legal system is out of control—an unstoppable clanking machine that has lost any ability to “draw the line” or respect “common sense” (to echo the titles of two books by Philip Howard, a New York lawyer).
The government, which began with a straightforward investigation of Mr Spitzer’s finances (the authorities initially suspected him of corruption), ended up devoting considerable resources to his favoured “prostitution ring”, the Emperor’s ClubVIP—resources that might have been spent on something more urgent, such as looking for terrorists. It went to the trouble of obtaining a federal wire-tap and examining thousands of e-mails. All sorts of draconian punishments are now possible for Mr Spitzer. He could get a year in prison for violating a 1910 federal statute, the Mann act, which prohibits crossing state lines for “immoral purposes”. (Mr Spitzer bought “Kristen” a train ticket to travel from New York to Washington,DC.) He could get five years for arranging his finances to conceal his payments to the agency.
American history is littered with examples of puritanism deranging the law, from the Salem witch trials onwards. Anthony Comstock, a 19th-century anti-porn campaigner, used his position as a postal inspector to seize 50 tons of books and 4m pictures. He boasted that he was responsible for 4,000 arrests during his career and 15 suicides. Under Prohibition people could be imprisoned for life for consuming alcohol.
Puritanism continues to stalk the country in new guises. The most dramatic example is America’s new version of Prohibition—a “war on drugs” that helps explain why one in 100 American adults are in prison. But there are plenty of humbler examples. Schools impose zero-tolerance rules that result in expulsion for minor offences. The citizens of Texas may not buy dildos. Americans are banned from drinking until they are 21.
The combination of legalism and puritanism invariably produces the same dismal results. It creates expensive government bureaucracies that seize on any excuse—rules relating to inter-state commerce are a particular favourite—to extend their powers to boss people about or spy on them. It throws up swivel-eyed zealots who pursue their manias with little sense of proportion or decency (remember Kenneth Starr). And it ends by devouring its children. Mr Spitzer is only the latest in an endless line of self-righteous crusaders impaled on their own swords.
He certainly had no choice but to resign (as he did on March 12th) if, as it seems, he broke the law. But that still leaves the bigger question of whether the law is an ass. George Bernard Shaw once defined “Comstockery” as “the world’s standing joke at the expense of the United States”; but it is hardly a joke for the people who are caught in its tentacles. There are enough real problems for America’s law-enforcement officials to worry about.
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