Critics made few objections to the system while it was serving them, and yet now pin all blame for one of its negative side effects on othersby Julian Baggini / July 17, 2017 / Leave a comment
Since 2007, bankers have been shown to have gambled with other people’s money, rigged the Libor rate, ripped off customers with Payment Protection Insurance and even hidden drug money. Yet the list of bankers convicted of crimes (five) is as short as this charge sheet is long. The question many have asked is: why?
The impulse to find a scapegoat is natural, but people should only be held to account if they did wrong wilfully or through culpable negligence. If merely making a mistake or being stupid were a crime, prisons would be a form of national service where we’d all be sent.
The almost visceral conviction that bankers deserve punishment assumes that the credit crunch was more conspiracy than cock-up but this jars with the increasingly popular idea that financial elites know nothing. It seems the public can’t make up its mind whether bankers are wicked or stupid, only that it doesn’t like them.
On reflection, many conclude incompetence is an insufficient explanation and a lot of bankers have been greedy, selfish and irresponsible. But so are many café owners, car dealers, journalists, artists. Rapacity and egotism are sins, not crimes. My point is not to excuse the bankers but to resist seeing their behaviour as wholly exceptional. We need to accept that the banking crisis did not occur in a social or legal vacuum. The institutions and actors involved were products of the same culture as those who criticise them.
Doing this is uncomfortable, counter-intuitive even, since we think of responsibility in individualistic terms. But this is a cultural artefact rather than a universal principle of justice. Think of how South Koreans reacted after the ferry MV Sewol capsised in April 2014, killing 304 passengers and crew members. Many people directly unconnected with the disaster expressed shame and shared the guilt. As one newspaper commentator put it, “Our nation has run headlong toward the goal of becoming wealthy for half a century, but we turned a blind eye to the goal of being a civilised and safe society.”
This was a failing of society as a whole, not any particular individual or ferry company and the Korean people accepted that. Similar attitudes are found across East Asia. But in the west we prefer to pin blame exclusively on…