Tuesday, January 12, 2010

An Ethic of Responsibility.

Usually we talk about Weber's Ethic of Responsibility and Politics as a Vocation when we talk about what is lacking in the modern Republican Party and its base. An Ethic of Responsibility means, more or less, having a sense of moderation, of probity, of the proper relationship between means and ends and, in the end a concern for the results, even the unintended results, of political actions. The modern Republican party is distinguished by its indifference to the results of its actions: climate change, the health care crisis, the lives of ordinary Americans all these are cheerfully sacrificed on the altar of regaining political power.

Power and political action to people without an ethic are goals in and of themselves, not a means to ends such as a more just state, better lives for individuals, even fewer abortions or a more religious society. We know that because when offered the chance to achieve some portion of their stated goals the Republicans currently in power in the House and Senate choose to do nothing. They refuse even to engage in the legislative process sincerely: they offer amendments on theoretically important topics like tort reform, or abortion limitation but they refuse to vote for the final legislation. Their grounds for refusing are mixed and various, but basically they are acting irresponsibly, in a Weberian sense, with no thought for the future of the public which depends on legislative action. (To get down to brass tacks these are, of course, people who would rather fail to pass a law that permits one poor woman to get an abortion than they would fight to pass a law that would grant free pre-natal care for all unborn children in this country). This isn't because they don't agree that there should be legislative action on a particular topic (such as health care), or even because they wouldn't, as a party, be able to affect or sway the direction of the legislation. They could achieve some partial good (even by their own lights) by working with the Democratic majority. What they can't achieve, however, is total control over the legislation, and the material and electoral goods that good legislation produces for the party with its name on popular legislation. In other words they implicitly and sometimes explicitly act as though as long as they don't hold supreme power there is simply no point acting politically at all. To the extent that they have openly committed to this as a strategy for getting back into power they privilege the potential that they will gain full control over the levers of power over any of the actual good uses of political power right now, in the present.

That's all pretty much by the by, a standard observation of the Republican party. What makes me unhappy isn't the fact that Republicans act like Republicans when they deal with the President or the Democrats--what makes me unhappy is when I see other Democrats and unaffiliated left leaning groups doing the same thing, sometimes even with a heightened sense of anger and spite. I'm talking about the current FDL led crusade against a perfectly ordinary person, Jonathan Gruber.

Look, I'm no starry eyed dreamer. Its not that I think the Obama people are without flaw, or totally incorruptible, or uncorrupted by their contacts with the major forces that fund our political system. But for god's sake the outrageous and spiteful smear campaign aimed at a perfectly ordinary academic for doing standard research work for one branch of the government while talking with another branch of the government is just insane. Let me say this very slowly: sometimes people are experts in arcane fields. Sometimes, if we are lucky, our government even contracts with such experts (as opposed, say, to hiring horse copers to run Fema). Sometimes, again if we are lucky, experts offer their expertise on topics of great national importance on TV or in print. The fact that, in some fields, all those people are the same person isn't actually all that surprising or outrageous. Its certainly not proof of something nefarious when the only thing that can be picked out of the mass of dots being connected is that a highly regarded academic advocates honestly for positions supported by his own research. I mean jeebus on a pogo stick this is really not "News At Eleven" material. Counter-examples where it does matter would be counterfactual, like if it turned out Professor Gruber was really pulling a John Lott. But that doesn't appear to be what is happening. And all the hysterical new revelations and top of the page headers in the world won't make a silk purse out of this sow's smear.

But it will do something: it will hurt Professor Gruber. If you don't like the policies he's advocating attack them. If you think, however foolishly, that the Obama administration has to pay chump change to some low level academic in order to make a fairly obvious economic argument in favor of their policies go ahead and attack them and the data. But why make it personal? Why keep up these attacks in such a bitter, vicious tone? I don't know him from Adam Smith so this is no piece of Broderian special pleading. Its not based on the well regarded dictum "people I like should be unmolested and people I don't like should be screwed over." But it ought to be obvious that a temporary civil servant, a low level staffer, an honest academic, a tiny cog in a larger game of thrones should not be attacked as a bad person simply because you disagree with his policy pronouncements and the only thing you can play "gotcha" on is the appearance of imagined impropriety.

You are, at this point, doing the exact same thing I described above when talking about the Republicans--you are letting your long term goal (gaining total power over the legislation or the government) interfere with your basic human duty towards others in the system. And you are doing it because it is convenient. Because in your minds an overall attack on the Obama administration's good intentions is more important than actually shifting the debate or crafting the legislation in a way that is more favorable to your stated goals. I don't know if the Obama administration did the best they could on health care, or did the worst they could. I don't know whether this is the outcome they wanted, or the outcome they feel they were forced to accept. That's a different argument. But the FDL argument, at this point, is that they were the evilest evil people in town--they set out to do a bad job, they will fight to maintain a bad job, and we are helpless to ameliorate what they are doing. If you really believed that I'm not sure what place the continuing attacks on Gruber play in any reasonable political action. Gruber is a bit player in a much bigger game--what he did or does has almost nothing to do with what will get passed as HCR. All you can do by attacking him is destroy a private person's life and his life's work. That's not a recipe for success when your time comes to recruit academics and staffers if you ever get into power. Its the tactic, I might add, of people who don't ever think they will get into power.

But as far as I can see the continued drumbeat of attacks aren't aimed at Gruber at all--they are aimed merely at destroying comity and trust--both within the Democratic coalition of legislators and as between democratic legislators and the voters. I've got nothing against a strong push from the left on all policy fronts. I think a strong left is important and that without it the Democrats will take the easy and lazy way out of every situation. But this is not a strong push from the left towards an achievable goal--its simply the politics of destruction for destruction's sake. Can anyone tell me what is the function of these almost hourly updates on "new news" on Gruber other than that they fit into the classic fox/drudge mold of a modern media fake storm of innuendo? Because I'm not seeing it as anything else. And its not worthy of us.

More simply: don't treat people as chum.

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