It Pays to Be Ignorant

The key to successful conspiracy is that the higher-ups do not ask what’s going on, and the lower-downs do not tell them.

The recognition of this basic axiom would dispel the fog of pretense which covers the Watergate affair now that the former Attorney General has explained why he thought it better not to tell the President, and a presidential public relations adviser has testified that ten months after the break-in the President told him, “I have racked my brain…were there any clues I should have seen…?” And, of course, his faithful old adviser assured him that there weren’t, though press, radio, and TV had been full of such clues day after day for many months beginning the morning after the break-in.

To understand how men who rise to the top by sharp minds and sharp practices suddenly turn as obtuse and undiscerning as their least promising office boys, it is useful to recall the “Watergate” with which big business shocked the nation more than a decade ago. A newly published study for legal practitioners called The Electrical Equipment Conspiracies: The Treble Damage Actions, by Charles A. Bane (Federal Legal Publications, New York), shows how the art of keeping the higher-ups in ignorance of what the lower-downs are doing can be perfected and institutionalized.

The Ervin committee ought to study the story and then recall John Mitchell for more effective cross-examination and a less slippery explanation of why he, the President’s most trusted political adviser, an Attorney General of the United States, and as crafty a mouth-piece as has appeared on the tube since Perry Mason, noticed so little and decided to tell Nixon even less.

The prosecutions of General Electric, Westinghouse, and the lesser fry of the industry for illegal price-fixing began in 1960 and proliferated into almost 2,000 treble damage anti-trust suits which cost the companies a half billion dollars in judgments and settlements out of court. The prolonged litigation even produced a burglary like the one at Watergate. During the trial of the first civil suit—its magnitude is indicated by the fact that it was finally settled out of court for $18 million—three men were surprised in the act of tampering with or photographing evidence in the files of counsel for the plaintiffs. But they fled before police arrived and, despite the full investigation ordered by an angry judge, were never found.

The story made headlines for months and was chewed over in indignant editorials as showing the realities behind the façade of free enterprise: the cartel for almost a decade had been fixing prices and bids on everything they sold from tiny two-dollar insulators to multimillion-dollar turbine generators.

But the cartel’s biggest success was in preserving the fiction that the top men in charge knew nothing of what was going on. Though this was the biggest anti-trust prosecution in history, though it was the first in which convicted businessmen did not get off with fines but actually went to jail, though it triggered an extended…

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