At the end of April 2019, a 28-year old confidence woman, Anna Sorokin, received a lengthy prison sentence for fraud. The sequence of events was cinematic in terms of the audacity of her swindle, which the courts concluded to be well in excess of $250,000. Using the alias Anna Delvey and claiming to be a German trust-fund baby, over the course of four years she materialized for periods in New York City and lived a pseudo-high life, staying at luxury hotels, dining at the best restaurants, buying designer clothes, and, to all appearances, socializing with the city’s elite. But in 2017 she stayed for too long, the better part of a year, and was finally unmasked and arrested for her ten-month fraudulent spending spree.
At the institutional level, she financed her lifestyle through presenting forged documents purporting to show a multimillion dollar trust in her name, requesting credit from American banks on the strength of those fake papers, and then absconding with the money advanced. At the personal level, she built credibility with individuals using social media, particularly Instagram, to create the illusion of great wealth. When asked to payment, she would claim that her credit cards were temporarily locked - a perfectly plausible situation for an international traveller - and then would ask her “friends” to provide cover for meals, airfare, accommodation, etc. It is the case of abuse of individual credulity that is most interesting.
Journalist Rachel Williams was one such “friend” and wrote a tell-all account for her home publication Vanity Fair. Her own brush with Sorokin began as a, to all appearances, genuine friendship and ended with Williams footing a bill of approximately $63,000 for one of the former’s international capers. Naturally at the trial, Williams joined the list of plaintiffs and was one of the primary witnesses for the prosecution.
Although the jury found Sorokin guilty of fraud overall, the jurors deemed her not guilty in relation to deceiving Ms. Williams. While the official judicial record has yet to be released to the public, the understanding is that Sorokin was acquitted of this charge because Williams, unlike the other victims, had multiple opportunities to witness the dishonest behavior of her “friend,” meaning that she could not claim breach of trust. The conclusion in this instance being that Williams had not demonstrated sufficient responsibility in protecting her own interests and that she had lacked a certain healthy skepticism when Sorokin offered special “treats.” (Williams is not coming out of the situation too shabbily, though; according to her own testimony on the stand, she has signed a book deal worth approximately $300,000, in addition to whatever amount will be her share from an upcoming film.)
The Williams portion of the trial was as much a study on the legal intricacies of personal responsibility and of individual choices. Williams admitted that in the months before the unraveling she had witnessed all the signs that Sorokin was a scam-artist but chose to accompany the latter on an “all expenses paid” overseas holiday regardless. Hence the jury’s decision that there was insufficient evidence to convict Sorokin of personally defrauding Williams exactly because the latter had willingly suspended her belief in order to participate in the former’s adventures.
The judgement regarding Williams’ complaint has a moral for broader society: If one is not sufficiently responsible to look after one’s own interests, there can be no complaining or finger-pointing when a situation goes awry. Under such circumstances, losing assets or intangible goods, for example $63,000, is a necessary consequence of indifference or willful ignorance. In a perverse way, Williams is to be commended for displaying resilience and reversing the course of events so successfully. One could argue that her book deal is an extreme illustration of the trite saying, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade,” though such a metaphor is limited because she was the one who allowed herself to be handed a basket of lemons.
Since 2008, when the Great Recession hit, there is a trope which runs through American socio-political discourse in which people as a general concept are “cheated” by entities, or their individual proxies, such as CEOs. Films such as The Big Short or the Wolf of Wall Street have cemented the trope into popular culture. Human interest tales of little, old grannies who lost all their savings on one particular stock, or through one particular bank, abound and are the heralds for calls demanding increased regulation. Much of the the nonsense espoused by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who claims to speak for the Millennial generation, is founded on the assumption that the world is divided into “swindlers” and “victims.”
On the other side of the political aisle, the same narrative appears with the added bonus of rhetoric arguing that the “swindlers” are making “stooges” of people who value concepts, such as loyalty or community feeling. To avoid pointing fingers, let’s take an example from literature: in the novel Anne of Green Gables, a major plot point is the failure of the bank in which the protagonist’s foster family kept their money. Consequently, the family’s quality of life decreases considerably, and Anne’s career plans are put on hold as there is now no money to cover her university fees. One of the details that emerges is that the parents had known for at least a year that the institution was struggling but hadn’t moved their money because they felt loyalty to the owners and believed the bank important to the local community. So rather than look after their own self-interest, they immolated their foster daughter and themselves on the altar of feelings and an assumed collective good. This type of story makes for great literature but when applied to real life the effects are catastrophic. Yet, based on news stories and the rhetoric of politicians, this is what has come to pass for many people today.
As economist John Tamny has pointed out, the myths of the swindler and the stooge, especially those parroted by the political right, are part of a disturbing inclination to apotheosize victimhood. This appears even in the language of Rachel William’s complaint against Anna Sorokin in which the former argued she was the victim of fraud, even as she admitted that she hadn’t spoken out against the latter’s antics toward other people out of misguided loyalty.
In the victimhood paradigm, reasoned self-interest is not a valued trait. It is characteristic to be vilified and hated, and responsibility, its close relative, is to be despised. Common sense, that little voice in the back of the head that says it’s impossible to be victimized by something or someone if one already knew about the problem, however unwillingly, is also rejected. Yet, contradictorily, our bookstores have entire sections dedicated to self-help. The irony is that most people are already in possession of the mental traits of responsibility and self-interest, the two instincts most needed to help themselves. They just need to be encouraged to employ them.