Thursday, August 20, 2009

Wonks, Hacks, Politics, and Morality

Yglesias and Klein are worked about about the rules of civility in politics, and I think it betrays a real lack of understanding of politics by two guys who are really smart about policy. I'm going to quote at length, because I want to talk about this a bit.

I’ve come to be increasingly baffled by the high degree cynicism and immorality displayed in big-time politics. For example, Senators who genuinely do believe that carbon dioxide emissions are contributing to a global climate crisis seem to think nothing of nevertheless taking actions that endanger the welfare of billions of people on the grounds that acting otherwise would be politically problematic in their state. In other words, they don’t want to do the right thing because their self-interest points them toward doing something bad. But it’s impossible to imagine these same Senators stabbing a homeless person in a dark DC alley to steal his shoes. And what’s more, the entire political class would be (rightly!) shocked and appalled by the specter of a Senator murdering someone for personal gain. Yet it’s actually taken for granted that “my selfish desires dictate that I do x” constitutes a legitimate reason to do the wrong thing on important legislation.

I'm consistently surprised by the resistance to admitting the human impact of policy changes. It would be, for instance, very uncouth to say that a coal-state senator who opposed climate change legislation was literally consigning thousands of people to death in order to protect hometown interests...[T]hese debates take place at a high level of abstraction. That's how you get weird situations wherein a congressman who has spent two decades enriching industry and voting to cut Medicaid and welfare can be run out of office because he crossed an ethical line and had an affair or took a kickback. The moral dimension is entirely absent in discussions of policy, as if we've all signed some agreement admitting that the cost to civility would be too great if we took the implications of each vote seriously.
Let's start with Ezra's argument. There are a couple of things here. We have an empirical claim that "these debates take place at a high level of abstraction" and that "the moral dimension is entirely absent in discussions of policy." The first is just wrong, isn't it? From Ted Kennedy's famous floor speech condemning "Robert Bork's America" to the Sage of Wasilla's "Death Panels," lots of debates are at the level of the specific, not the general. And as both of those examples show, the specific examples are often used to get to a moral dimension about the effects of policy is often front-and-center in the debates. Listen to balanced budget fans talk about their issue; even a green eyeshade issue like that is just as likely to be framed in ethical or moral terms as it is in terms of (simply) practical effects.

What is generally avoided are claims about the motivations of political actors. We frequently criticize the morality of policies, but not (in proper civil debate) the morality of politicians. Ezra is right about that; in fact, normal parliamentary rules prohibit Members of Congress from questioning the motives of other Members. But that's not a bad thing; it's a very good thing. Matt talks about situations in which self-interest "constitutes a legitimate reason to do the wrong thing on important legislation." In fact, Members are not supposed to do things for pure self-interest; that's why bribery laws correctly (if perhaps ineffectively) distinguish between money going into the politician's pocket compared to campaign funds. It's because we assume that a politician's political self-interest is a good thing! If a West Virginia pol opposes climate legislation because it's bad for his constituents, that's not a moral outrage; that's democracy. He can, of course, be mistaken about what's good for his constituents (as his colleague who supports the law may be wrong about what's good for her constituents), but he's not wrong to act on what he believes is good for his re-election because his constituents will like it.

Part of this is that democracy doesn't go well with absolutes. Yglesias is certain that there's a right thing and a wrong thing to do, but in a democracy, there really isn't any such thing. In a democracy, we allow for the possibility that my interests or views differ from the national interest (and I'm allowed to try to have those interests or views represented, no matter how parochial or wrong-headed they are).

Another part, though, is Bruce Reed's old distinction between wonks and hacks. Matt and Ezra are wonk pundits par excellence. I think that when Matt writes that being in Washington has made him " better and better at understanding other people’s ideologies," what he's saying is that he's had great wonk socialization. What he's missing is the hack point of view: why getting politics right, and not just getting policy right, is important in a democracy.

Moreover, we don't look at people's motives because, in a democracy, the motives aren't important; in fact, we have to assume that other people's motives are as good as ours are. We have to believe that the pol who says she believes that Death Panels are going to kill her baby really thinks it -- and we fight against her by questioning her understanding, her conclusions, her abilities, but not her motives. For more on why its important to leave motives out of politics, the best thing to read is Hannah Arendt's On Revolution. Here's an excerpt:
To be sure, every deed has its motives as it has its goal and its principle; but the act itself, though it proclaims its goal and makes manifest its principle, does not reveal the innermost motivation of the agent. His motives remain dark...most of the time from himself, from his self-inspection, as well. Hence, the search for motives...transforms all actors into hypocrites; the moment the display of motives begins, hypocrisy begins to poison all human relations.

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