A Level Gaze

"What effect must it have on a nation if it learns no foreign languages? Probably much the same as that which a total withdrawal from society has upon an individual."
--G.C. Lichtenberg


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Saturday, September 21, 2002
Government is the source and arbiter of all legitimacy

I haven't been blogging much lately. I've felt discouraged. In addition to the remarkable community of bloggers on the left that makes my words too often seem like a weak, hollow 'me-too' echo, I also have been feeling that we're making no headway whatsoever. Sure, once in a great while, MWO slightly bends media coverage (in a tiny paragraph, say, somewhere around page 17 of the Washington Post). But that's about it.

Paul Krugman, arguably the most effective and erudite critic of the Bush Administration, has had no meaningful impact whatsoever. This is not an indictment of either him or his writing. However, all he has managed to accomplish outside the ranks of the already converted is to bring calumny upon himself. A very well-respected economist, writing in the nation's paper of record, who gets everything right, has accomplished nothing of substance. So what chance do I have?

Here's what happened when he wrote that Bush's tax cut was a bad idea: He laid out a number of incontrovertible reasons why the tax cut is bad medicine for the economy, and for the country as a whole. Moderates and centists ignored him completely. A large number of voices on the right vilified him personally. A smaller number of voices on the right said something to the effect of 'No it isn't!' A still-smaller number of voices on the left (who had virtually no chance of getting a wider hearing beyond themselves) applauded the arguments and Krugman's intelligence and honesty. In the furthest, most obscure reaches of political debate (blogdom, et al.), the issue of Krugman's veracity was more or less rationally debated. And that's it. In the face of a clearly enunciated, rationally consistent refutation of its assertions, the government was obliged to do exactly nothing.

Anywhere else, the obligation would have been much greater. Imagine a squad of soldiers in unfriendly territory. The sergeant has been ordered to follow a particular road en route to the squad's objective. A soldier on recon comes back to the unit and reports that an enemy ambush has been set up on the road and suggests an alternate path. Should the sergeant a) plow ahead on the planned route; b) radio to his superiors, inform them of the ambush and request reinforcements or alternate orders; c) proceed along the alternate path; or d) cautiously move forward and verify the presence of the ambush.

In this situation, any sane person would choose b or d, or c at the very least. No one in his or her right mind would ignore the warning and take the previously determined route. If the unit were decimated by the ambush as a result, the sergeant would be court-marshalled, and all the world would put the blood of his unit on his hands.

There is widespread agreement that the government had the responsibility to take credible threats of terrorism into account in its actions prior to last September's attacks. There is widespread agreement that it is essential that we improve our performance in that respect as soon as possible, and that doing so requires an examination of what went wrong in and prior to 2001. By the same logic, it had the same responsibility to take Krugman's (who is nothing if not credible) warnings into account before pushing for its mammoth tax cut. It has the same obligation with regard to Iraq; we must fully examine the risks, potential gains, potential expenses, and complications of invasion and its aftermath before acting.

In each of these cases, the Bush administration has shirked its duty. Only yesterday, more than a year after we were attacked, did it drop its opposition to a congressional investigation of intelligence failures prior to 9/11. Before the 2000 election, Bush and his backers assured the public that the then-anticipated surplus justified their proposed tax cut (which at the time was even larger than the one that was passed). After the surplus vanished, they argued that the cut would stimulate the economy enough to restore surpluses. Neither argument addressed Krugman's (credible) objection, namely that it would seriously compromise the health of the economy for years to come, and exacerbate the growth of the divide between rich and poor. On Iraq, the administration continues to push forward, heedless of any caution or objection, failing even to address them even as thousands of innocent lives are placed at risk by its actions.

The problem here is that the government of a country is the ultimate source and arbiter of legitimacy. That is, after self-defense, its primary obligation. A free society cannot function when it fails to discharge this duty in good faith. Until the government pronounces on an issue, it has not been settled; every disagreement is merely a situation of he said/she said. Disputes are only ever truly and finally settled by a court. The words of an individual, a company, a university or foundation are merely that, words, until they are upheld or denied by one or more arms of the government.

When a government's legitimacy is broken, the incentive to work for the public good is removed and replaced by the incentive to maximize one's own well-being at the expense of others. Trust in the government's even-handedness is dissolved, as protections and advantages given to some are denied to others. Respect for the rule of law is destroyed, as there is no indication that it will be applied fairly or evenly. People become either helpless victims of governmental tyranny or toadying sycophants of power. This is the situation on the ground in hundreds of countries around the world, and we are well on the way to joining them.

Bush's recent move to repopulate HHS scientific review committees overwhelmingly with those who agree with his policies (and who, therefore, are willing to ignore scientific data in favor of political considerations) is one of the best and clearest examples of the administration's abdication of its obligations as arbiter of legitimacy. It alone has the force to enforce its viewpoint via the law. It has all but announced its intention to impose its will by fiat, regardless of the potentiaal damage caused to the well-being of the people. Truth itself cannot stand in the face of a government unwilling to acknowledge it.

Our republic was set up with the good of its citizens in mind, and its government was therefore constructed to be accountable to them to provide for the public good. Democracy was chosen as the best means to assure the long-term continuity of this accountability. But democracy is not infallible.

In order to work properly, democracy requires:

1) Government's absolute obligation to truth, and full disclosure of same.

2) Enforcement of sanctions against those who contravene the public good.

3) Good-faith efforts to advance the good of the greatest number in both the short- and long-term.

4) Equality before the law as interpreted and enforced.
--Of individuals, both native and foreign
--Of various corporations and industries
--Of regions, races, sexes, and religions
--Of rich and poor, especially with regard to their respective treatment in the court system.

5) Courts that uphold the Constitution and the historical precedents deriving therefrom.

6) Transparency in its workings, in the interest of both accountability and evolution in response to changing conditions.

7) Rewards for good service other and greater than re-election (e.g., the public must respect and esteem public servants who succeed in their mandate).

8) A voting public capable of discerning the above.

With the exception of #7, the Bush administration has worked actively to undermine each of the factors listed above.

Instead of respecting truth, the administration has mischaracterized the effects of its tax cut, its committment to the environment, and the state of the economy (especially with regard to the deficit). In speaking about Iraq, it has made pronouncements in the absence of corroborating evidence, and, in some cases, in opposition to existing evidence.

Instead of enforcing sanctions against those damaging the public good, the administration has moved to limit corporate liability for workplace injuries, to relax penalties for mendacious accountants and lawyers, to limit punishment for polluters, and to limit damages awarded to those injured by corporate negligence and malfeasance.

Instead of working for the general good, the administration has reduced subsidies for home heating for the poor, effectively denied health care to veterans, and taken the side of energy companies against Californians. Adding injury to injury, it is using the money saved to preferentially reduce taxes on the wealthy and to build a useless missile-defense system.

Instead of equally applying the law to all, the administration has incarcerated foreign nationals indefinitely without charging or trying them or allowing them access to counsel. The administration has constructed its energy policy with the interests of oil and energy, and not those of the general public, in mind. The administration has repeatedly favored the interests of corporations over those of the people who work for them.

Instead of supporting the constitutionality of the court system, the administration has time and again put forward for appointment individuals with histories of disregarding precedent in favor of advancing their ideologies.

Instead of working transparently, the administration has resisted a public inquiry into pre-9/11 intelligence failures, has broken the law by hiding from public scrutiny the presidential records of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, has directed its agencies to ignore the Freedom of Information Act, and has refused repeated court orders to make public its energy policy deliberations.

Instead of accepting the judgment of the public, the administration has worked to actively obfuscate issues, arguing first one way, then another. When the public responds unfavorably to its proposed actions, it changes tack, always repeating its objective until enough of the country wearily acquiesces. It has characterized abrogations of civil liberties as promoting freedom. It has used faulty logic and grossly inaccurate mathematics to confuse voters on issues of great national importance.

While these executive branch actions and initiatives have worked against governmental legitimacy and democratic oversight, the opposition and the press are equally at fault for allowing it to happen. Their obligation to governmental legitimacy is equal to the president's, and their failure to honor it is equally destructive.

Richard Nixon was forced to resign by a legislative opposition and skeptical press that would not acquiesce to his inaccurate version of the truth. Bill Clinton directed the appointment of special prosecutors against himself to determine the truth of charges (which now seem petty, and of which he was innocent), because the press and the opposition demanded it.

Without such demands for true legitimacy and a refusal to accept this administration's hopelessly inadequate substitute, we will turn from self-determining free people into subjects of the will of a cabal.