Book Review: With Liberty and Justice for Some by Glenn Greenwald


This is an infuriating book. There were many times during last weekend when I was reading it that I wanted to hurl it against the wall though I am not by nature prone to such dramatic displays of emotion.

The reason is not the usual one, which is that one hates the book. It is because the story that Greenwald tells, in his typically direct and lawyerly style, about how the US has steadily deteriorated to become a nation to which the labels ‘oligarchy’, ‘plutocracy’, and ‘banana republic’ have become so apropos, was so infuriating. I am old enough and follow politics closely enough that almost all of the individual cases that Greenwald talks about are familiar to me, at least in general terms. But to see it all carefully laid out end to end, to see the steady and deliberate and knowing erosion of the rule of law, to see the corruption and hypocrisy that is at the core of the government-business-media oligarchy that runs the US, to see the cheerleading for this process by the establishment media all the while relentlessly preening themselves on being watchdogs, is to realize how terrible is the current state of affairs.

The subtitle of the book How the Law is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful pretty much says it all. He points out that equality before the law is one of the bedrock principles upon which the US was built, and indeed is seen as the basis for any just society, but that ideal has been dramatically undermined in the last four decades. This does not mean that there is, or has ever been, perfect equality in the past. As he writes:

Wealth and power have always conferred substantial advantages, and it is thus unsurprising that throughout history the rich and well-connected have enjoyed superior treatment under the law. In the past, those advantages were broadly seen as failures of justice and ruefully acknowledged as shortcomings of the legal system. Today, however, in a radical and momentous shift, the American political class and its media increasingly repudiate the principle that the law must be equally applied to all. To hear our politicians and our press tell it, the conclusion is inescapable: we’re far better off when political and financial elites-and they alone-are shielded from criminal accountability.

It has become a virtual consensus among the elites that their members are so indispensable to the running of American society that vesting them with immunity from prosecution-even for the most egregious crimes-is not only in their interest but in our interest, too. Prosecutions, courtrooms, and prisons, it’s hinted-and sometimes even explicitly stated-are for the rabble, like the street-side drug peddlers we occasionally glimpse from our car windows, not for the political and financial leaders who manage our nation and fuel our prosperity. (p. 15)

He starts his story with the pardoning of Richard Nixon in 1974, where the novel idea was put forward that ‘for the good of the country’ the president should not be subjected to prosecution for his crimes and that ‘he had suffered enough’ merely because he had to resign and had his reputation damaged. At that time, some of Nixon’s close aides were prosecuted and in fact served jail time. But the circle of immunity was expanded during the Iran-Contra scandal of the Reagan administration when even other officials who committed crimes were pardoned. The pattern of each president not prosecuting the crimes of its predecessor has accelerated right through to Obama and for good reason: that tacit expectation of immunity from their successor gives each president license to break the law as and when they see fit.

The next major erosion of the rule of law occurred in the past decade with the expansion of immunity to the private sector, by the granting of retroactive immunity from prosecution to the giant telecommunications companies for their collusion with the government in the illegal wiretapping of Americans. We recently saw elite immunity under the Obama administration on full display as his administration has engaged in a systematic avoidance of prosecutions in the case of the financial crisis of 2008 and the foreclosure frauds of 2010 (still continuing) where, as Jeff Connaughton describes, not a single senior executive has gone to jail or even been criminally indicted, the only punishments consisting of the occasional levying of fines to companies (without even requiring an admission of wrongdoing) that are trivial to these giant institutions and can simply be written off as the cost of doing business.

Greenwald says that the US has become the very sort of nation that its founders thought that they had escaped.

To be sure, this dynamic has prevailed in imperial capitals for centuries. And it is what explains much of official Washington. The crux of political power (the White House) is the royal court, the most powerful leader (the American president) is the monarch, and his highest and most trusted aides are the gatekeepers. Those who are graced with admission and access to the royal court-including “journalists”-are grateful to those who grant them that privilege. They are equally grateful to the political culture on which their special status, privileges, and wealth depend. Naturally, the journalists’ impulse is to protect those who bestowed such favors on them and to promote the culture that sustains them, even as they sentimentally invoke their supposed role as watchdogs over the powerful-a role that they long ago ceased to perform. (p. 47)

Greenwald says that the revolving door between the government and elite sectors of the private economy ensures that there is continuity in the corruption.

It’s vital to understand how this process truly works. People like [Director of National Intelligence] Mike McConnell don’t really move from public office to the private sector and back again; that implies more separation than actually exists. Rather, the U.S. government and industry interests essentially form one gigantic, amalgamated, inseparable entity-with a public division and a private one. When someone like McConnell goes from a top private sector position to a top government post in the same field, it’s more like an intracorporate reassignment than it is like changing employers. When McConnell serves as DNI he’s simply in one division of this entity, and when he’s at Booz Allen he is in another. It’s precisely the same way that Goldman Sachs officials endlessly move in and out of the Treasury Department and other government positions with financial authority, or the way that health care and oil executives move in and out of government agencies charged with regulating those fields. (p. 75)

Just think about how this cycle works. People like Rubin, Summers, Patterson, and Gensler shuffle back and forth between the public and private sectors, taking turns as needed with their GOP counterparts. When in government, they ensure that laws and regulations are written to redound directly to the benefit of a handful of Wall Street firms, abolishing most regulatory safeguards that keep those behemoths in check. When the electoral tide turns against them, they return to those very firms and collect millions of dollars, profits made possible by the laws and regulations they implemented (or failed to implement) when they were in charge. Then, when their party returns to power, back they go into government, where they use their influence to ensure that the cycle keeps going. (p. 117-118)

The only people who are punished with jail are those who are stupid enough to swindle those of their same class or are more powerful than them (Rod Blagojevich, Bernie Madoff) or those celebrities who can be made an example of (Martha Stewart). It will be interesting to see what happens to Jon Corzine who has an impeccable elite pedigree (former Democratic US Senator and governor of New Jersey and, most importantly, former head of Goldman Sachs, the firm that pretty much controls US financial policy) for his role in the MF Global debacle. Will we be told that he has ‘suffered enough’ and should be free of prosecution or will he be made into a sacrificial lamb, in order to patch up the crumbling facade that no one is above the law?

We have now reached the stage where a small but powerful elite class now feels immune from prosecution for crimes, while at the same time the screws are being increasingly tightened on everyone else with more and more punitive laws stringently applied to those who are not of the elite. It is no accident that increased elite immunity from crimes has run parallel to the rapid growth of incarceration of the powerless. The rest of us are increasingly enmeshed in so many laws that we are all likely felons whether we knowingly commit crimes or not, and thus in danger of a vindictive prosecution if we should step out of line. Prosecuting and jailing the people who merely protest or commit low-level crimes has been a boon for the private prison industry, which has been booming in these hard times.

As Kozinski and Tseytlin note, anyone who has ever misfiled their taxes (even inadvertently), or consumed any illegal drugs (including marijuana), or bet on a sporting event with a bookie, or lied to a government bureaucrat, or even just performed their job poorly (if it’s an occupation regulated by the federal government) has committed a federal offense for which they could be sent to prison-and for which many of their fellow citizens are now actually imprisoned. Similarly, the criminologists Beckett and Sasson report that “in 2000, police arrested more than 2 million individuals for such ‘consensual’ or ‘victimless’ crimes as curfew violations, prostitution, gambling, drug possession, vagrancy, and public drunkenness. Fewer than one in five of all arrests in that year involved people accused of the more serious ‘index’ crimes” such as assault, larceny, rape, or homicide. It should hardly be controversial that a system of criminal law that theoretically renders a substantial portion-if not an outright majority-of the citizenry subject to long prison terms is both excessive and unjust. (p. 234-235)

Observe how zealously the government aids the music and film industry in the prosecution of ‘internet piracy’. Note how the loaded word ‘piracy’ is freely used when dealing with the kinds of people who do this kind of thing on a retail basis while much more benign terms are used to describe the wholesale criminal actions of the elite.

Where, in all this, are our erstwhile watchdogs of democracy, the media? They have long been coopted and are now the running dogs of the oligarchy, faithfully serving their interests in return for the scraps that fall their way. Their role is to provide distraction and entertainment, not news.

In this world, it is perfectly fine to say that a president is inept or even somewhat corrupt. A titillating, tawdry sex scandal, such as the Bill Clinton brouhaha, can be fun, even desirable as a way of keeping entertainment levels high. Such revelations are all just part of the political cycle. But to acknowledge that our highest political officials are felons (which is what people are, by definition, who break our laws) or war criminals (which is what people are, by definition, who violate the laws of war) is to threaten the system of power, and that is unthinkable. Above all else, media figures are desperate to maintain the current power structure, as it is their role within it that provides them with prominence, wealth, and self-esteem. Their prime mandate then becomes protecting and defending Washington, which means attacking anyone who would dare suggest that the government has been criminal at its core.

The members of the political and media establishment do not join forces against the investigations and prosecutions because they believe that nothing bad was done. On the contrary, they resist accountability precisely because they know there was serious wrongdoing-and they know they bear part of the culpability for it. (p. 220-221)

Greenwald shows how people like Joe Klein of Time and Richard Cohen and David Broder of The Washington Post all excuse high-level criminality and vociferously denounce any efforts to apply the law to their friends in high places while simultaneously righteously demanding that justice be strictly applied to ordinary people for petty crimes. And these people are ‘liberal’ journalists, supposedly on the side of the downtrodden. Greenwald (correctly, in my opinion) focuses on the collusion of Democrats in this corruption, thus disabusing us of the notion that it is only the Republicans and conservatives who are the servants of the oligarchy. It is only when people realize that the rot is deep and bipartisan, that the labels that politicians and business leaders and mainstream media pin on each other are meaningless, that we can expect to see real pressure for reform.

How is it that people allow such things to happen? The pattern is always the same:

Indeed, those who abuse state power virtually always follow the same playbook. By initially targeting new abuses at groups that are sufficiently demonized, they guarantee that few will object. But abuses of power rarely, if ever, remain confined to these demonized groups. Rather, degraded principles of justice, once embraced in limited circumstances, in time inevitably come to be applied more broadly. (p. 267)

This kind of oligarchic takeover of a country inevitably leads to greater and greater inequality and injustice and at some point even a passive population like that in the US will be stirred to anger and revolt. A hard reckoning awaits us.

My one quibble with the book is that Greenwald does not provide sources and citations for his information, which is surprising since his blog posts conscientiously link to source material. Providing such citations is a tedious chore for an author but valuable to the reader and if the book goes through another edition I hope he adds them.

This is a book that will make you angry and should make you angry. But it is also a book that must be read widely for the valuable information it provides. I urge you to buy it and read it and encourage others to do so.