Thoughts on the passing of Leona Helmsley.

Perhaps you've heard the news that Leona Helmsley died yesterday. Her obituaries have noted the the "Queen of Mean" came to be viewed as the embodiment of the greed of the 1980s (at least as it played out in the world of Manhattan real estate).
The public didn't like her much.
I have no real basis for making a judgment about whether she was a nice person deep down, whether she became a nicer person after doing jail time for tax evasion, or whether she was kind to animals. But I would like to have a look at something she was widely reported to have said (but denied saying):
"Only the little people pay taxes."

Because I'm not necessarily concerned with this claim solely with respect to what it might show us about Helmsley's alleged attitude toward the tax code, let's consider the alternative gloss I've heard attributed to her:
Rules are for little people.
The idea seems to be that there's a relevant distinction that can be drawn between the Little People and the Big People. The Big People have something, be it money or political power or standing within certain social circles, that excuses them from unpleasant tasks like paying taxes or following rules.
Indeed, I'd be reluctant to read these claims as saying that the Big People are excused from particular obligations like paying taxes or following rules, simply because you're obliged to meet your obligations. If you don't meet them, you've failed in your duties to others or to yourself. The image of Leona Helmsley conveyed by her alleged dismissal of the Little People is that she did not think she had any duties whatsoever to them.
Of course, you may think you have no duties to others and still be mistaken about that.
Sadly, I fear Helmsley was not alone here. We have experience on an almost daily basis of people trying to make exceptions of themselves. When I blogged about this kind of thing (in the context of an airline passenger who could safely be described as getting her Leona on) a few years ago, I noted:

I'm not the most Kantian kid on the block, but one of Kant's insights I think is dead-on is that it's assy to make yourself an exception to rules you expect others to observe. If no one takes the jetway tag for his or her wheeled suitcase, there won't be room for anyone's carry-on luggage. Maybe if everyone else gets his or her wheeled suitcase checked, I'll have room to carry mine on (though not in this case) -- but I can only count on this payoff if everyone else plays by a different rule (follow the gate agent's instructions) than I play by (do what you want).

The exercise of working out the potential consequences for real estate developers and heads of hotel chains if no one paid any taxes is left to the reader.
In any case, why Leona Helmsley stands as a public villain is that this kind of "rules for thee but not for me" attitude has the potential to screw up the smooth operation of any realm in which you apply it. As I wrote before:

To a certain extent, what's true for the airline passenger is true for the research scientist, too. It's assy to count on other scientists to follow rules but decide that you don't have to follow them yourself. It would be assy to expect others to share reagents, while never sharing your own. It would be assy to expect others to review your manuscripts fairly if you yourself were a reliable source of venom in your reviews of the manuscripts of others. It would be assy to demand that others get their protocols approved by the IRB while making unauthorized changes in your own IRB-approved plans.

Let us mark Leona Helmsley's passing by committing ourselves to following the rules we expect others to follow. If the rules strike us as wrong, let us openly discuss forming new and better rules rather than skulking around pretending we are following the rules and breaking them on the sly. And let us consider that it may take a bigger person to make herself subject to her duties to others than it takes to shirk those duties.

Comments are off for this post

  • Drugmonkey says:

    in Soc, the "tragedy of the commons"
    conceptually similar to woo-land nutjobs who won't vaccinate their kids yet take full advantage of the population benefits of near-universal vaccination.
    ditto animal rights nutjobs with the "water under the dam" approach to existing therapy
    ditto cheating scientists
    ditto palm-greasing politicians
    ditto politicians who pass tax laws that fall disproportionately on anyone-who-ain't-like-them-or-theirs
    Do you consider the position that this is an essential characteristic of human societies? That the good little rule-followers are indeed the LittlePeople, aka "suckers"? just asking.

  • Dennis says:


  • dogscratcher says:

    Is "assy" a Kantian neologism?

  • S. Rivlin says:

    Not following the rules begins in childhood. There is probably a certain reward mechanism in the brain that, once activated with a successful rule breaking, the urge to experience it again could become a habit. Many can control this "addictive" behavior through simple teaching of "right and wrong." For others the habit is too rewarding to give it up. Clearly, the majority of the rule breaking people doing the deeds in hiding. for those who are too expose to the public's eye (the Helmsleys and the Stewarts of the world), breaking the rules is part of their success (so they believe), their aura and their fame.

  • coathangrrr says:

    While I agree with you on the following of rules, to some extent, she didn't seem to be making normative claims. "Only the little people pay taxes" is not to say that only little people should pay taxes, but that they are in fact the ones that pay taxes. Insofar as rules are for little people, again I'd have to say that as a descriptive statement it holds. The evidence of how the justice system treats those with money and how the legislative process treats them makes it clear, to me at least, that rules really are for little people.