The Skulls, Bones and The Power of Law
The Skulls is a fictitious movie based on Yale's notorious secret Skull and Bones society. It follows the path of a new initiate through the process of getting picked, going to clandestine meetings, engaging in rituals and tests of dedication, until finally being ushered into membership, complete with all its lucrative privileges.
In the process, however, something goes wrong. Someone gets killed inside the secret war-room, a complete cover-up ensues, and the main character is faced with an impossible dilemma. When he finally decides he won't go along with the secret crime, he becomes an enemy to the society, and they begin to hunt him.
As they head towards the ultimate confrontation, he pulls out the club's rulebook, and demands a duel under their own code. If he wins, they have to let him go. If he loses, he is dead. Club rules.
When I first watched that, I kept wondering why they didn't just kill him. They, after all, held all the power. Why not just go ahead and shoot him? Who was forcing them to go along with the code, even when it was being used against them?
In retrospect, the answer is obvious. The leaders of the society benefit profoundly from the society's existence. Its existence as a strong and united organization is predicated on the strength of their common rulebook. Without that rulebook, the society would fracture along all kinds of interests and loyalties.
And so the leaders must sacrifice to maintain the rulebook's strength. They must bind themselves unswervingly to its code, because once they no longer do so, the book loses its hold over the society, and it becomes worthless as a tool of control.
There's a powerful truth here. Laws aren't free. Someone buys their power.
Proponents of gold-backed currency are fond of suggesting that paper money has no value whatsoever, that it really only holds imaginary worth.
But that's not quite true. When America went off the gold standard in the 70s, the value of the dollar plummeted, but it didn't bottom out. It was adjusting to its new basis of value - the machinations and gullibility of the American people.
A simplistic way to think of this is to imagine that all that gold, sitting there for decades, could have been earning interest. If someone had taken it to the bank, it would have produced solid returns year after year, compounded until it doubled, tripled, quadrupled the original amount.
Instead, that potential interest was poured into growing the value of the dollar, until the original gold was removed, and the interest itself was able to carry the weight of the dollar's value.
This is an analogy. The real location of that "interest" was in the trust that politicians and government had painstakingly purchased, with their blood, sweat, and conspiracy. They bound themselves over to this system, in order to buy power for the system.
We are quite used to thinking of politicians as corrupt. We imagine that they break all kinds of laws, that they skirt the rules behind the scenes, engaging in closed-door negotiations and secret treaties.
But even politicians are punished. When they are found out, when their friends and their allies are exposed, the penalties fly forth. And they submit. They sacrifice their friends and families if necessary, they let due process take its toll.
Of course, they try to hide. They have numerous loopholes and excuses and exemptions. But this just reinforces the law itself: If the law exempts me, who am I to question it?
By submitting themselves to the law, by enforcing it even on their companions, they are giving it power. They are feeding the machine, binding themselves to the system, buying it control. All of this so that the system can maintain its force and influence. All of this so that they may hope to exercise some of that control.
So perhaps the real corruption is not in how they break the laws, but in how they keep them.