Pervasive Impunity and a Crisis in Governance

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June 21, 2016; National Public Radio

This week’s vote in Britain on whether to stay as part of the European Union (EU) or exit the continental compact, also called the “Brexit,” is not just about immigration. For many ordinary Britons, it’s about impunity. Impunity is the abuse of privilege for personal or institutional gain. To ordinary people, impunity is manifest as “I don’t have to follow the rules, I am above the law. I don’t have to report to ordinary people, and I don’t need to ask permission.” Impunity is more than just a rejection of privilege; it’s a revulsion against the flaunting of privilege. Most citizens in the West at least grudgingly respect privilege as a byproduct of success (the legacy of Horatio Alger) and Americans’ embrace of “celebrity” is well known to include both villains and heroes.

Novelist (and now polemicist) Frederick Forsyth captures the mood of many who deplore the impunity of the EU when it comes to dealing with citizens of member nations. Forsyth characterizes European Commission President Jean Claude-Juncker as “mandating by decree” and refers to the elected EU Parliament as an “endorsing body” as opposed to a “law-creating Parliament.” In an earlier piece written for The Express, Forsyth traces the lack of democracy in the EU back to its founding after World War II. The EU founders were heirs to the failure of democracy in Germany, Italy, and elsewhere to prevail over fascism, and so looked elsewhere for a governing model.

Instead there would be a new system: government by an enlightened elite of bureaucrats. The hoi polloi (you and me) were simply too dim, too emotional, too uneducated to be safely allowed to choose their governments. It never occurred to him to devise a way to strengthen and fortify democracy to ensure that what happened in Italy and Germany in the 1920s and 1930s could not happen again. No, democracy was unsafe and had to be replaced.

NPR interviewer Steve Inskeep suggests Forsyth’s position “resonates with Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders,” but viewed in light of his piece in the Express, Forsyth’s argument sounds more like Bernie Sanders’s critique of the Democratic Party.

Besides Forsyth’s analysis, a lot of analysts who are not Brexiteers lament the EU’s impunity. A blog post on The Hill by Mark Weisbrot gives one example: “So EU officials are demonstrating once again not only their contempt for democracy, but their shamelessness as extortionists.” The EU’s distance from the will of the people is seen as the same kind of weakness that runs through many multinational economic organizations, like the International Monetary Fund.

For voters who are less likely to analyze their feelings about impunity, “throw the bums out” is the answer. The U.S. presidential election features two of the most disliked candidates in the nation’s history. From Trump’s use of the campaign “pulpit” to make an audacious attack on the judge presiding over a personal lawsuit, to Hillary’s circumvention of the email rules of the State Department she was entrusted to lead, impunity is rampant.

The public sector is scarcely the only place one encounters impunity. It’s everywhere, from Peter Thiel’s bankrolling of Hulk Hogan’s suit against the celebrity website Gawker to public revulsion against the judge in the Stanford rape case. In the past month, at least three stories in NPQ have highlighted the impunity of self-serving nonprofit executives and trustees, including Larry Kaplan’s “Barron’s Warns Public on Joint Cost Allocations and Other ‘Accounting Chicanery’,” Martin Levine’s “Public-Private Partnership or War? L.A. School children May Soon Find Out,” and Ruth McCambridge’s “Sen. Grassley Calls Out Red Cross for Stonewalling Haiti Investigation.” On Tuesday, the Cincinnati Enquirer profiled a nonprofit that supports the Metropolitan Sewer District, which is in a heap of trouble for nepotism and self-dealing.

Win or lose the Brexit vote, public institutions will continue to face “populist” challenges until they become more accountable to “the people.”—Spencer Wells