How could a man who appears to value honor and the integrity of the legal system explain this apparent mendacity? How could a man brought up in some of our nation’s most storied institutions — Georgetown Prep, Yale College, Yale Law School — dissemble with such ease? The answer lies in the privilege such institutions instill in their members, a privilege that suggests the rules that govern American society are for the common man, not the exceptional one.
The classical root of “privilege,” privus lex, means “private law.” The French aristocracy, for instance, was endowed with privileges, primarily exemption from taxation. Today’s equivalents are not aristocrats, yet they have both the sense and the experience that the rules don’t really apply to them and that they can act without much concern for the consequences. Elite schools like Georgetown Prep and Yale have long cultivated this sensibility in conscious and unconscious ways.
What makes these schools elite is that so few can attend. In the mythologies they construct, only those who are truly exceptional are admitted — precisely because they are not like everyone else. Yale President Peter Salovey, for instance, has welcomed freshmen by telling them that they are “the very best students.” To attend these schools is to be told constantly: You’re special, you’re a member of the elect, you have been chosen because of your outstanding qualities and accomplishments.
Schools often quite openly affirm the idea that, because you are better, you are not governed by the same dynamics as everyone else. They celebrate their astonishingly low acceptance rates and broadcast lists of notable alumni who have earned their places within the nation’s highest institutions, such as the Supreme Court. I heard these messages constantly when I attended St. Paul’s, one of the most exclusive New England boarding schools, where boys and girls broke rules with impunity, knowing that the school would protect them from the police and that their families would help ensure only the most trivial of consequences.
This narrative of the exceptional student rests on a fiction with pathological consequences: Economist Raj Chetty has shown that children whose parents are in the top 1 percent of earners are 77 times more likely to attend an Ivy League school than are the children of poorer parents — meaning that, in cases like this, admission is less about talent and more about coming from the right family. In that way, privilege casts inherited advantages as “exceptional” qualities that justify special treatment. No wonder that, when the poor lie, they’re more likely to do so to help others, according to research by Derek D. Rucker, Adam D. Galinsky and David Dubois, whereas when the rich lie, they’re more likely to do it to help themselves.
Guests wait to enter the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill, in Washington. (Andrew Harnik)
The scene during the vote for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh
Such selfish tendencies extend well beyond the way the privileged use untruths to their advantage. According
to research by psychologists Paul Piff and Dacher Keltner, elites’ sense of their own exceptionalism helps instill within them a tendency to be less compassionate. This
may have its roots in the fact that there seem to be two different sets of consequences for the rich and the rest. Take drug use. While the poor are no more likely to use drugs (in fact, among young people, it’s the richer kids who are more likely to drink alcohol or smoke marijuana), they are far more likely to be imprisoned for it, and they experience vastly disproportionate imprisonment for all crimes compared with the wealthy. In the end, it is impossible to separate success from class.
Kavanaugh’s privilege runs deep, and it shows. He grew up in a wealthy Washington suburb where his father spent three decades as CEO of a trade association. There has been a sense among his supporters that his place is deserved, which mirrors the climate of aristocratic inheritance he grew up around. His peers from the party of personal responsibility have largely rallied around him, seeking to protect his privilege. As a Bush-era White House press secretary, Ari Fleischer, put it: “How much in society should any of us be held liable today when we lived a good life, an upstanding life by all accounts, and then something that maybe is an arguable issue took place in high school? Should that deny us chances later in life?” American Conservative editor Rod Dreher wondered “why the loutish drunken behavior of a 17 year old high school boy has anything to tell us about the character of a 53 year old judge.”
This collective agreement that accountability doesn’t apply to Kavanaugh (and, by extension, anybody in a similar position who was a youthful delinquent) may help explain why he seems to believe he can lie with impunity — a trend he continued Thursday, when he informed senators that he hadn’t seen the testimony of his accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, even though a committee aide told the Wall Street Journal he’d been watching. In his furious interview with the panel that afternoon, Kavanaugh appeared astonished that anybody might impugn his character or try to keep him from the seat he is entitled to. “I’m never going to get my reputation back,” he complained.
Yet we cannot ignore that instead of dedicating his life to the relentless accumulation of wealth, Kavanaugh has pursued a career of public service. As a Justice Department aide to Kenneth Starr and, later, a judge, he earned a fraction of what he might have in the private sector. This represents another critical lesson of elite schools: servant leadership. The mission statement of my alma mater, for instance, professes “a commitment to engage as servant leaders in a complex world.” You are bred to be a leader who serves a higher ideal than your own advantage. Whatever you believe of his politics or his background, Kavanaugh’s commitment to public service cannot be denied.
While they seem contradictory, servant leadership and privilege are often bedfellows. Both suggest not a commonality with the ordinary American, but instead a standing above Everyman. Both justify locating power within a small elite because this elite is better equipped to lead. (Retired justice Anthony Kennedy, according to some reports, hand-picked Kavanaugh as his successor — a rather astonishing circumvention of the democratic process and the separation of powers.) Both have at their core not a commitment to shared democracy but a moral imperative to lead because of one’s exceptional qualities. And both allow space for lying in service of the greater good. Privilege means that things like perjury aren’t wrong under one’s own private law.