America has been drifting toward a level of corruption incompatible with a free society and a free-market economy.
Political and economic freedom depend on the presence of a level of honesty that makes it possible for people to interact with one another with a sense of trust.
Consider recent corrupt, criminal events and their implication for the future of American culture.
An estimated $20 billion was stolen from California’s unemployment compensation program. The money was largely taken by criminals already incarcerated in California prisons using prison computers. Outside accomplices would pick up the money, according to the Sacramento district attorney I interviewed.
Stealing $20 billion takes a pretty good number of crooks. If you assumed the average theft was $200,000, that would require 100,000 people willing to be thieves. Of course, the number might be higher. As Jason Smith, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said, the inspector general reported that a total of $191 billion in COVID-19 relief funding has been stolen. The inspector general cited one case in which a person had used identity theft in 29 different states to steal $500,000. At that rate, of course there would only have to be 40,000 dedicated crooks to steal $20 billion.
Surrounded by dishonesty, a free society and a free market cannot survive.
Shoplifting, flash robberies, and rampant crime have dramatically increased since so many jurisdictions have dramatically raised the dollar threshold of felony theft (in some places, stealing something worth $950 is a misdemeanor). Police won’t waste time arresting crooks who prosecutors won’t prosecute. The result is that petty theft on a grand scale has become a way of life for tens of thousands (maybe hundreds of thousands) of people. Target alone estimates that it lost $600 million last year to theft in the San Francisco Bay region.
Add to this the rises in carjacking, burglary, and mugging. The rise in crime inherently means more criminals and more acceptance of living on someone else’s money.
In this context, the Hunter Biden–Biden family pattern of influence peddling is just one more example of a country sliding into the acceptance of criminality as the norm.
Politico journalist Ben Schreckinger’s new book, The Bidens: Inside the First Family’s Fifty-Year Rise to Power, is a pretty good introduction to the world of grifting at the heart of the Biden family’s economic well-being.
No serious person believes that Hunter Biden got money from Russia, China, Ukraine, and other foreign countries because he was good at business. Hunter Biden got a lot of money (including a 3-carat diamond from a Chinese billionaire) because he seemed a good bet to influence his father, then–Vice President and now-President Joe Biden.
Beginning with the Bill Clinton presidency, we shifted focus from what was morally right to what you can get away with. Lying in the pursuit of survival became a legitimate behavior. An island full of young women? Why not? Lavish gifts, huge grants of money, and favors from billionaires? Why not? In the words of Max Bialystok in The Producers, “When you’ve got it, flaunt it.”
Hillary Clinton deleted 33,000 emails and had her staff literally take a hammer to destroy a hard drive. Who are we to question the purity of her intentions?
The FBI has been corrupted at the top and lied about Donald Trump as candidate and president. The great American newspapers published these lies — and won Pulitzers for it. Now, it’s clear their journalists were either duped or knowingly dishonest. Yet, they still have the Pulitzers.
Fifty-one intelligence officials signed a dishonest letter just before the 2020 elections discrediting the Hunter Biden laptop and claiming it was probably a Russian hoax. So what?
This steady drift toward dishonesty and toleration of blatant open hypocrisy is a cancer at the heart of American culture. The collapse of the core American value of honesty has been startling.
An honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work was a fundamental pattern of American society. It contrasted sharply with the Soviet saying of “the state pretends to pay us, and we pretend to work” (this was the prelude to a depth of corruption that ultimately undermined the entire Soviet Union).
The gap between a culture of honesty and a culture of lies was captured by Arkady Shevchenko in his stunning memoir Breaking with Moscow. Shevchenko was the No. 2 Soviet at the United Nations when he decided to defect. He recounts in his memoir that the decisive moment came when he first landed in New York City and was driving to the Soviet Mission. Suddenly, he noticed that there were all these small grocery stores with tables of fresh fruit and vegetables and no guards. If America was so rich and so honest that no one was stealing all these goodies, then everything he had been told about America was a lie. From that point on, he was planning his defection.
I remember living in Europe as a child in the late 1950s, where my father was serving in the U.S. Army. It always hit me that most of the storefronts had metal shutters that could be pulled down every night. This was an anti-theft device — and protection against potential riots and vandalism.
In my childhood, schools still taught a positive, slightly romanticized version of American history. I grew up in a world still shaped by the heroism and courage of World War II, in which 16 million Americans served in uniform. The concept of honor, duty, and country was more than a West Point slogan. Millions of young Americans had risked their lives for their country.
Honest Abe was a real reflection of President Abraham Lincoln’s life. George Washington as a child might not have cut down a cherry tree and said he could not tell a lie — but there was no question that the father of our country was a man of enormous integrity. He inspired and sustained Americans through eight years of war. In his Farewell Address, he said, “I hold the maxim no less applicable to public than to private affairs, that honesty is always the best policy.”
Benjamin Franklin, the oldest of the Founding Fathers and a businessman, inventor, scientist, diplomat, and politician, conveyed simple homilies that taught lessons about life — “Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise,” or, “A penny saved is twopence clear.”
The debunking process that began in the 1960s undermined the American fables. But, more importantly, it undermined the values that had sustained our wise, idealistic society — that had offered more freedom, opportunity, prosperity, and safety to a wider range of people from all backgrounds than any society in history.
Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, in a soberingly prescient essay titled “Defining Deviancy Down,” warned that as a country accepts lower standards, the process of erosion accelerates. At each stage, the previous period’s unthinkable becomes normal. It is like being on a downward escalator of decay, dishonesty, falsehood, and degeneracy.
James Q. Wilson and George Kelling introduced the concept of “Broken Windows” in an essay in 1982. In essence, they said that allowing a neighborhood to decay physically will lead to a rise in crime. The existence of disorder makes more disorder more acceptable.
In what may have been the most successful anti-crime experiment in history, Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Police Commissioner Bill Bratton applied this theory in a stunning reversal of crime in New York. The Big Apple became one of the safest cities in the world. In recent years, as liberals have rejected the enforcement of the law against small crimes, the rapid decay of communities has been tragic further proof that “Broken Windows” was right.
If you send a signal that crime is acceptable, you will get more criminals. If you send a signal that corrupt government officials are acceptable, corruption will become a way of life.
There may be no more important fight in the next decade than the reassertion of basic honesty and lawfulness.
The alternative is a steadily decaying, corrupted, and criminal America.
Surrounded by dishonesty, a free society and a free market cannot survive.
This is how important the fight for honesty is.
Newt Gingrich was speaker of the House of Representatives from 1995 to 1999. For more commentary by Newt, visit Gingrich360.com.