A panel of scholars from the fields of law, economics, and philosophy gathered at Cornell Law School to debate a growing problem in American public life: Is it possible to prevent people who regularly engage in boorish and self-entitling behavior from crippling our institutions in government, the financial services industry, and the broader economy?
The topic and title of the colloquium-Brats, Bros, Boors and Tyrants: Asshole-Proof Governance from Firms through Industries to Polities-were developed by the organizer of the November 29 event, Robert Hockett, Edward Cornell Professor of Law.
“The problem of ‘a-h-ery’ has clearly become a conspicuous social, political, and economic problem,” Hockett said. “Arguably it had been a political problem even before obstructionism became the order of the day in Congress, but in the last couple of years it seems to have reached a fevered pitch in nearly all spheres of our lives.”
The colloquium began with Aaron James, a professor of philosophy at University of California Irvine and author of Assholes: A Theory, defining an asshole as someone “who allows himself special advantages in cooperative life with an entrenched sense of entitlement that immunizes him against the complaints of other people.”
One industry that has epitomized this behavior on a systemic scale is the financial services sector, said Saule Omarova, professor of law. The industry seems to attract a high number of individuals-the infamous Masters of the Universe and Wolves of Wall Street-who feel morally entitled to pursue personal enrichment by any means necessary, she said.
“Investment bankers don’t think of being an asshole as something bad-it’s viewed as a good thing,” Omarova said. “They wear that label with pride and bravado, because to them, it literally means being above the rules applicable to ordinary working people.”
This behavior was on full display in the run-up to the 2008 financial crisis, when Wall Street executives promoted high-risk speculative trading and defrauded customers, Omarova said. Breaking this pattern would require structural reforms, such as splitting up large financial enterprises most likely to benefit from public bailouts, she said.
In most companies, being viewed as someone who is self-important can often derail your career, said Robert Frank, Henrietta Johnson Lewis Professor at Cornell’s Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management.
“The way to succeed in the world is to become a member of a highly functioning team,” Frank said. “There are very few such teams, and everybody wants to be a member. But if you claim every last bit of the success that you’ve achieved and are reluctant to recognize that you’ve had some help or some good fortune along the way, why should they believe that you’ll put the team’s interests ahead of yours?”
In the political arena, Aziz Rana, professor of law, said the primary purpose of the American Constitution was to address the “a-h” problem by creating political structures whose checks and balances would prevent tyranny. Nevertheless, the system did not prevent the rise of socioeconomic elites who could use their material resources and power to control the levers of government.
“Trump in many ways both epitomizes the conversation we’re discussing and is a symptom,” Rana said. “The problem continues to be the way in which we have a political system that empowers minority rule, disenfranchises large numbers of people, and creates various veto points that mean that popular forms of legislation are impossible to get through the political process.”
Sherry Colb, Professor of Law and Charles Evans Hughes Scholar at Cornell Law School, said there are “interspecies assholes”-people who manifest human supremacy over animals in a manner that violates social norms, such as kicking a dog who doesn’t sit on command. She pointed out that Americans ate about 45 million turkeys during Thanksgiving that were killed at slaughterhouses she described as “horror shows.”
“Animals know the suffering that humans ignore,” said Colb, author of Mind If I Order the Cheeseburger? a book about veganism. “Consuming animal products contributes to the infliction of harm on animals. The philosophy behind it is we’re human and they’re not, so it’s sort of a might makes right idea, which underlies most persecution.”