N.Y. governor’s dubious ways cause downfall

Freedom New Mexico

Hubris, the Greek word roughly translated as overweening pride, seems to have been the fault or sin that has brought down New York’s Democratic Gov. Eliot Spitzer, who resigned on Wednesday.

It was foreshadowed in his prior career as New York’s attorney general, even the aspects of that career that many commentators found admirable. It is ironic but perhaps appropriate that it was an almost-trivial aspect of the shortcoming many people with government power share — the attitude bred by the use of power that the moral code they enforce on others does not apply, at least in some respects, to them.

Power corrupts, as Lord Acton wisely pointed out, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

While the federal prosecutors seem to have been careful in documenting the activities of “Client 9” of an alleged international prostitution business, it is wise to withhold judgment as to the governor’s culpability. He has not been charged with any crime, and if he is, he is to be considered innocent until proven guilty.

But he has admitted that his action “violates my — or any — sense of right or wrong.”

It’s also worth noting that in a saner and freer society, prostitution, so long as it is carried on between consenting adults, while it might be viewed as immoral, would not be subject to the criminal law.

Criminalizing prostitution, in fact, makes it more likely that unfortunate and genuinely social corrosive aspects of the trade, such as coercion and violence, will occur.

And the 1910 Mann Act, which makes it a federal crime to transport people across state lines for prostitution or “immoral purposes,” is an expansion of central government power for which no warrant can be found in the U.S. Constitution properly understood.

However, we do not live in that saner and freer country, we live in a country with the laws it has. And Spitzer built his career in public life as an aggressive enforcer of the laws that are on the books, sometimes stretching the original meaning of the laws to reach preferred targets of his prosecutorial enthusiasm.

As attorney general he presided over the breaking up of at least two prostitution rings, accompanied by suitably indignant and moralistic statements from him. It somehow seems fitting, then, that a man who sometimes used dubious laws in dubious ways to advance his political career should be brought low by his own (alleged) violation of dubious laws.

Spitzer’s cynical attitude toward the proper use of the law was foreshadowed during his career as attorney general. He set out to develop a reputation as the “scourge of Wall Street,” trading on widespread envy and resentment toward those seen as greedy and overreaching, but he often did so in thuggish and legally dubious ways. One example will serve:

Spitzer in 2005 set out to get Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, then chairman and CEO of AIG insurance company, and he coerced the AIG board into firing Greenberg by threatening to file criminal charges against the company as a whole, a corporate death sentence.

Then, before charges were filed, he went on national television and accused Greenberg of “fraud” that was “illegal,” the only question being whether it was civil or criminal. But Spitzer never did file charges.

When John Whitehead, former chairman of Goldman Sachs, wrote an op-ed critical of this action, Spitzer called him on the phone and said (according to Whitehead’s notes, written down immediately after): “Mr. Whitehead, it’s now a war between us, and you’ve fired the first shot. I will be coming after you. You will pay the price. This is only the beginning and you will pay dearly.”

In short, Spitzer, by many accounts, was more than a bit of a bully, and used his position as attorney general — and later as governor — in a bullying fashion.

In Greek myths, hubris is almost always punished. Spitzer has already been punished severely and it is almost irrelevant whether the legal system moves against him.

His example should be a warning to all of us, however, to beware of people who use morality and uprightness as weapons against others rather than as guides for their own behavior.