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Friday, September 4, 2020

What Pelosi’s Salon Scandal Says about the ‘Lockdown Elite’

There’s a deeper lesson to be learned from watching politicians who espouse egalitarian rhetoric indulge in clearly non-egalitarian behavior.

Composite image by FEE (Gage Skidmore on Flickr & Bill de Blasio on Flickr - CC BY 2.0

Nancy Pelosi got caught this week.

The House Speaker is in the proverbial hot seat after it was discovered she had her hair done Monday inside a salon in downtown San Francisco, despite a government order forbidding salons from providing business indoors.

Surveillance video circulated online (see below) showed Pelosi “with wet hair inside the salon, not wearing a mask.”

Pelosi took responsibility for the flap … sort of.

“I take responsibility for trusting the word of a neighborhood salon that I’ve been to over the years many times and that when they said we’re able to accommodate people one person at a time and that we could set up that time, I trusted that. As it turns out, it was a set-up,” Pelosi said. “So I take responsibility for falling for a set-up.”

There’s no need to go into all the details of Salongate and the potential political consequences pundits are discussing. The truth is, Pelosi’s hypocrisy isn’t that uncommon.

A casual look at 2020 shows examples of “do as I say, not as I do” have been rampant during the pandemic. Here are a few examples:

Mayor Kenney’s Secret Dinner in Maryland

Earlier this week, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney was compelled to publicly apologize after he was busted sneaking over to Maryland to enjoy dinner at a restaurant over the weekend.

Meanwhile, indoor dining remains forbidden in Kenney’s own city under orders imposed by the city.

“I felt the risk was low because the county I visited has had fewer than 800 COVID-19 cases, compared to over 33,000 cases in Philadelphia,” Kenney wrote. “Restaurant owners are among the hardest hit by the pandemic. I’m sorry if my decision hurt those who’ve worked to keep their businesses going under difficult circumstances.”

Bill de Blasio: ‘I Need Exercise’

In March, New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio defended his decision to go to the gym during the pandemic while other New Yorkers were forbidden to do so.

Unlike Speaker Pelosi and Mayor Kenney, De Blasio didn’t sound particularly contrite or bothered by the hypocrisy.

“I need exercise to be able to stay healthy and make decisions,” de Blasio explained, adding that he was exercising in a “very socially distanced situation.”

Gov. Lujan Grisham: Jewelry for Me

In May, Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham found herself on the defensive when an Albuquerque news network accused the governor of breaking her own orders by purchasing jewelry from a store while all “non-essential” businesses were closed.

The previous month, during an April 3 press conference, Grisham explained why businesses must be closed. She also acknowledged the “tough financial times” and empathized with the “personal sacrifices” being made. Days later, she reached out to an employee at a high-end jewelry store—Lilly Barrack on Paseo, which was closed by state order—and arranged a purchase of expensive jewelry.

A spokeswoman for the governor defended the sale, noting the purchase was made remotely and the store remained “closed” during the purchase.

“The store was never ‘opened’ and a good safe process was followed,” spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett told the Associated Press.

Mayor Lightfoot: ‘I’m the Public Face of This City’

Then there’s Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot. Earlier this year the Associated Press noted Lightfoot’s especially hard-line approach to enforcing the city’s strict social distancing policy, in some cases personally breaking up gatherings at private residences.

“Your conduct—yours—is posing a direct threat to our public health,” Lightfoot told one group of people allegedly flouting social distancing rules, according to the AP.

Lightfoot defended her closure of salons and barbershops, noting that “getting your roots done is not essential.” But she sang a different tune when it came to her own appearance, after it was discovered she arranged a private visit from a local stylist.

“I’m the public face of this city. I’m on national media and I’m out in the public eye,” said Lightfoot, who also banned political demonstrations on her own block even as her administration failed to protect business-owners and other “commoners” from violent riots.

These are just a handful of examples of politicians refusing to live by the same rules they demand others follow. (You can bet for every politician busted, a dozen got away with it.)

Pretty much everyone can agree it’s not a good look. Humans despise hypocrisy. It is “the only vice that cannot be forgiven,” the great English essayist William Hazzlit once observed.

So it’s no surprise to see these stories trotted out by partisan media and politicians in an effort to make political hay during election season.

That’s fine; politics is politics. But there’s a deeper lesson to be learned from watching politicians who espouse egalitarian rhetoric indulge in decidedly non-egalitarian behavior.

There’s a wonderful scene in the critically acclaimed 2006 German film The Lives of Others that demonstrates the stubborn persistence of hierarchy even in political systems built on ideological foundations of equality.

Directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, The Lives of Others explores the quiet terror of life behind the Berlin Wall in East Germany when a Stasi captain is assigned to spy on a playwright who leaders of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) suspect may have subversive ideas. (In truth, a high-ranking KPD official simply desires the playwright’s lover.)

The ideal of a socialist system is equality, but viewers quickly see there is little equality to be found in the communist state. Throughout the film we see members of the KPD enjoy power regular citizens do not, and we also see within the Party itself that hierarchy very much exists. The best example comes in a scene in a state cafeteria involving protagonist Gerd Wiesler, the Stasi captain, and his superior, Lt. Col. Anton Grubitz (a nasty fellow).

Wiesler moves to sit at a table near several young people of lesser rank, prompting Grubitz to point out that captains sit in the back. To Grubitz, the idea of high-ranking officers sitting next to underlings clearly is strange.

Even in a state where utopian socialism reigns supreme, inequality is not vanquished; in fact, it is exacerbated.

As the great economist Ludwig von Mises once observed, it’s impossible to extinguish hierarchy from human affairs.

“As there will always be positions which men value more highly than others, people will strive for them and try to outdo rivals. Social competition is consequently present in every conceivable mode of social organization,” Mises wrote in Human Action.

Hierarchy and social climbing will therefore be found even under “egalitarian” socialism, which Mises regarded as a totalitarian system. Social status will just be based on proximity to power, as opposed to competence and service, which are what tend to determine status in a free society.

“In a totalitarian system social competition manifests itself in the endeavors of people to court the favor of those in power,” Mises wrote. “In the market economy competition manifests itself in the facts that the sellers must outdo one another by offering better or cheaper goods and services and that the buyers must outdo one another by offering higher prices.”

Indeed in communist Russia, the Party elite (called the nomenklatura) had special privileges that afforded them a lifestyle that contrasted sharply with the poverty of the masses. As the Los Angeles Times reported in 1986:

Members of the so-called nomenklatura, numbering perhaps a million, have special holiday retreats, access to special medical facilities and—most resented by ordinary Russians—access to special stores that sell imported and Soviet-made goods that are simply not available in the regular stores. Many also have cars and chauffeurs.

As a practical matter, the privileges are hereditary, since children of the elite have an inside track on admission to the top universities—graduation from which guarantees them good jobs and a place on the nomenklatura list.

America is not a totalitarian socialist state, but the lockdowns gave Americans just a taste of how such systems work. Those with power and influence were able to enjoy perks that those without power could not in most cases (at least not legally).

Moreover, those exercising their power and influence to procure services and products other people could not get through a market economy saw little problem in doing so (at least until they were caught). Indeed, some clearly believed their position entitled them to such perks.

Statements from Lightfoot and de Blasio make it clear they believe their status as public officials grants them certain privileges regular people cannot reasonably expect to have. In effect, they fancy themselves as members of an American lockdown nomenklatura.

This proves Mises’s point: Hierarchy is unavoidable, even in states built on the promise of equality. And humans being humans, they naturally become aware of their position in the hierarchy and use it to their advantage, even as they continue to celebrate the ideal of equality.

Mises is not alone in this assessment, it’s worth pointing out. A celebrated English writer and former socialist ultimately reached this very same conclusion about socialism and hierarchy.

“All animals are equal,” George Orwell famously wrote in his great literary work Animal Farm, “but some animals are more equal than others.”

  • Jonathan Miltimore is the Editor at Large of at the Foundation for Economic Education.