When accountability goes, so does legitimacy

by Kevin Frazier

“I’m just the middle guy.” It seems like a harmless and justifiable excuse. But when entire companies, governments and communities become dominated by “middle guys” working for “the boss,” the little guys lose out. This may not seem like a problem to those who can afford to get around middle guys. These are the folks who seemingly float above the barriers that slow everyone else down. They’re the handful of individuals who can, for example, charter private jets and avoid the airline ticket counter — a dominion controlled exclusively by middle guys whose hands are always tied.

It turns out there’s rarely a middle guy who can’t be circumvented with some time and money. For everyone else, there’s a looming accountability crisis brought on by promises being made by individuals and institutions with no intention of ever keeping them — and instead putting the blame on an unaccountable middle guy.

Accountability does not exist if those who hold power don’t face consequences for taking inadequate, illegal or immoral actions. In the Age of the Middle Guy, Average Joes and Janes cannot afford to go after “the boss,” who is protected by complex contracts, well-paid lawyers and deep pockets. In short, in too many situations it now takes time and money to get back your time and money.

Case in point, my friends hired a moving company to deliver their goods to a home in a new state. Well, that’s what they thought. In actuality, they hired a “broker,” who hired a “mover,” who hired contractors to move their stuff. When their goods arrived damaged and two weeks late, they tried to get a refund from the contractors — who pointed them to the mover, who pointed them to the broker, who never answered their calls. My friends wanted to hire an attorney to go after anyone and everyone but lacked the time and money to get back their time and money.

Initially, I questioned why my friends didn’t read enough Google reviews to hire a better company. Then, I realized … Wow! I have sipped way too much Kool-Aid. I rushed to question the consumer — the Joes and Janes with no power rather than an industry and culture that has robbed little guys of any means to impose consequences on those who should be held accountable.

Those in power go out of their way to diminish the likelihood and magnitude of those consequences. In other words, they try to reduce the odds of getting caught and, if they somehow are caught, they try to limit the severity of the punishment.

Over time, the powerful have created more and more creative ways to evade detection and escape punishment. They’ll use distance (see King George counting on an ocean to avoid facing the colonists); time (see dictators throughout history delaying elections); middle guys (see moving companies hiring contractors); and bureaucracy (see some governments) — all in an effort to reduce the odds of little guys coordinating to actively hold them to account.

Regrettably, the powerful usually succeed. Little guys don’t have the time and resources to sail across the sea or, in modern times, wait on hold. What’s more, even when the powerful get caught in the act, they manage to avoid facing severe consequences — their contracts are too strong, their lawyers are on speed dial, and their political ties are too deep.

When accountability goes, so does legitimacy. When little guy after little guy has a story about being taken advantage of, with nothing to show for their suffering, entire institutions can start to crumble. The stories of corruption spread and the willingness of Joes and Janes everywhere to trust institutions dissipates.

That lack of trust is spreading today and has become one of the most important issues of our time. One way to restore that trust is to look for ways — through regulations, rules and norms — to cut out the middle guy and make sure that the powerful can be directly, swiftly and appropriately held to account.

Kevin Frazier is an assistant professor at the Crump College of Law at St. Thomas University. He previously clerked for the Montana Supreme Court.