James Meigs, writing in City Journal, talks about what he calls “the chump effect.” He is not the first to use the phrase. Andrew Ferguson coined the phrase years ago to deal with a different issue. But James Meigs uses it to illustrate how many of us feel like “chumps” when we follow the rules and see others succeed when they break the rules.
You know the feeling that he describes. You are inching forward in the freeway exit lane, and another driver flies past and swerves onto the ramp at the last second. Your child has to complete their college-entrance exams within a designated time period while your neighbor’s child gets twice as long because of a suddenly diagnosed “learning disability.” You pay extra to have your pet travel in the airplane’s cargo hold, and then sit across from a yipping dog who gets to ride on an owner’s lap because it is an “emotional-support animal.”
He reminds us that “thousands of norms, rules, and traditions make civilized life possible. Some, like paying taxes or not littering, are enshrined in law.” Most of us follow the standards of etiquette and certainly follow the law. Here are some important questions. What happens when more and more people break the rules? What happens when political leaders break their own rules?
These are no longer hypothetical questions. Governors and mayors have been caught violating their edicts, and most of them merely try to justify their actions. A number of district attorneys have decided not to prosecute people who don’t pay transit fares and not prosecute shoplifters who steal less than a few hundred dollars.
Those of us who follow the rules will start feeling like “chumps.” And it is only a matter of time before more and more of us start wondering why we play by the rules. If those guys don’t have to play by the rules, why should we? This is a prescription for anarchy and lawlessness.