I’ve had a passing interest in Whitey Bulger for a few decades now, after having read an article on him in some glossy. What makes his story fascinating is not the man – he’s a vicious, murdering thug by almost all accounts – but rather the people who surrounded him and the various mental and emotional contortions through which people see the story.
Exhibit A is this recent article from Slate. Here, at least, the writer acknowledges that he and his neighbors were willfully blind to or blithely dismissive of the evils Whitey routinely committed. In other items I’ve read over the years, a recurring theme was that just about everybody knew Whitey killed people, everybody assumed his brother Billy, for decades the most powerful state politician in Massachusetts, was helping to keep him out of jail, but that most people from the South Side just shrugged those problems off and thought of him as a colorful local, another in a century-long stream of Irish hot heads that peopled that part of Boston. That he was destroying their neighbors by pushing drugs and leaving a trail of bereaved families in his wake was evidently outweighed by his being an Irish Southie.
The strong tendency of a looked-down-upon or persecuted minority to circle the wagons around anyone they see as one of their own is clearly at work here. The Irish in Boston had very good reasons to stick together and distrust outsiders. Whitey, as one of their own, got a huge benefit of the doubt when outsiders like the FBI went after him. It doesn’t seem to matter that Whitey and his activities were contributing mightily to the downward spiral of the Southie neighborhood that was part of the foundation of clannishness that protected him. On an even larger scale, the people of urban Massachusetts show the same clannish tendency to not only look the other way, but to double down and defend their own, no matter how criminal their behavior. The likes of Billy Bulger, the Kennedys, and Barney Frank are seen as criminals only in the same way Robin Hood was a criminal – they break the law, maybe, but they deliver the goods to the downtrodden. Quick well-known examples: Billy Bulger kept the law off his brother and routinely intimidated the press (back when a politician might occasionally need to do that sort of thing) into laying off any investigations into what Billy’s government was up to – go after Billy even a little, and you will never get access to anyone or anything again, and might just get fired; the Kennedy clan, at the very least, got Chappaquiddick hushed up; Frank’s fingerprints are all over the financial collapse and his supposed efforts to regulate Wall Street are a transparent sham; The Big Dig – a joint effort – may have wasted billions, but a lot of that waste was spent with local contractors paying local guys, so it’s all good. In all cases, as long as a politician could bee seen as bringing money back to the state or neighborhood, the means by which he did it was immune to scrutiny.
A possibly milder version of this phenomenon may be seen in how everybody hates politicians – except for their own local guys, who seem all right. A more generous soul might be inclined to think people have a harder time hating somebody they know, and that all politicians would be lovable if only people got to know them. But the locally beloved politician possess, in virtually every case, exactly the characteristics people hate in all other politicians from elsewhere.
John Kenneth Galbraith pointed out something true (hey, it happens): that capitalism is characterized not so much by
risk-taking as by risk-aversion. Perhaps small firms embrace risk because they have no choice. An entrepreneur sees chaotic and unsettled markets as opportunities. But a big, successful company is strongly inclined to eliminate risk any way it can. It’s already coining cash – that’s what being a big, successful company means – and so it can direct its attention and resources towards reducing risks*. Some are simple smart business – keeping your customers happy, for example; some are morally iffy – buying up and shutting down competitors or potential competitors; and some are simply illegal. This is another case where Hegel said something true (hey, even THAT happens): that quantitative differences in the extreme are qualitative. Here, that just means that huge companies are not like little companies in crucial ways, and applying the same logic or making the same assumptions about their behavior will lead one astray.
What I wish is that is that Galbraith had applied that same exact logic to political parties and government, but I’ve seen no evidence he ever did: that a small-time politician would see a wide-open election as an opportunity, but a large established party with power would see it as a threat. The small-timer has few options, especially if he is opposing an established party: he generally must hope the election is fair and that he can win it fairly. He knows that if things get dirty, he’s got little chance – he lacks the resources of an established party, and so will almost assuredly loose if thinks get ugly.
From a big, established party’s perspective, elections are terrible risks, to be mitigated any way possible. Those possibilities include relatively honest and legal efforts such as gerrymandering (hey, at least nobody gets killed, usually) to writing the election rules to so heavily favor the major parties that it will take a miracle for anyone else to win anything important, to siccing the IRS on your opponents, to – here it comes – throwing ballot boxes (or, if need be, your opponent) into the Chicago river.
Thus, we get to bring Fichte into the discussion: just as he can’t even imagine that the ‘state and its advisers’ could fail to provide the best possible education to the German children they are to seize and indoctrinate, so the many people of Galbraith’s mind can’t even imagine that government is liable to many of the the same temptations that they decry in business. But even gigantic companies regularly fail – the companies in the Dow-Jones 30 from even just 50 years ago are mostly gone, while we haven’t had a new major political party in 150 years. Hmmm, curious, that.
Back to Whitey. One thing should be clear, and we’ve illustrated it using the Irish in Boston, but it applies as well to the Chicago Machine, or Louisiana under Long: that the clannish homerism that gave Whitey a pass for decades is at play in the pass given to home town politicians, and that much of the corruption we are now seeing is enabled by this attitude: you can break the law so long as you deliver the goods. Or, more clearly: we won’t even be able to see you breaking the laws if you deliver the goods.
* Buying up government officials is one good way, and dovetails nicely with the point I’m trying to make, but that’s another essay.