The perfectionism-neutrality debate
Last week I wrote about government’s use of taxes, tax credits, fees and regulations, and legal punishment to incentivize and disincentivize personal behavior, such as the homebuyers tax credit, taxes on alcohol, parking meter fees and speeding tickets. As I noted, one of the key public philosophical questions that arises is “to what ends may government incentivize/disincentivize behavior?”. This question gets at the core of a philosophical debate over whether the state should promote certain conceptions of the good life (“goods”). One side of the debate – perfectionism – claims that the state can and should promote goods. Neutrality, on the other hand, argues that the state can and must refrain from promoting the good and instead promote only “the right.”
NYU Law Professor and sometimes public philosopher, Ronald Dworkin, posits that this debate ultimately sets liberalism, which Dworkin believes is grounded in neutrality, apart from other political theories. Other liberal theorists, such as Rice University philosopher George Sher, believe perfectionism can be compatible with liberalism. In this post I want to elaborate on this debate, though within the space limitations of a blog I will just get to skim the surface. Read more
At TNR.com, Damon Linklater writes an interesting review of Michael Kimmage’s book on Whitaker Chambers and Lionel Trilling, two thinkers whose mid-20th Century rejection of their early communism influenced the current American ideological marketplace. Linklater writes:
Until the mid-1950s, American conservatism was less a coherent ideology than an irritably reactionary mood: reflexively hostile to the federal government, staunchly isolationist, explicitly anti-modern, proudly agrarian, and incapable of distinguishing between communism and New Deal liberalism, which were treated as twin forms of modern tyranny. Thanks in no small part to Chambers—whose religiously inspired turn to anti-communism became a significant influence upon conservative ideology owing to his classic memoir Witness, his friendship with William F. Buckley, Jr., and his essays for National Review—mainstream conservatism eventually came to support the use of American power in the world and to accept the legitimacy of a strong (if strictly limited) role for the federal government in American life.
This is interesting – and unfortunate. A new Gallup poll released today suggests that the American public is more politically divided than ever, at least when measured by Presidential approval ratings. The percentage gap between Democrats’ and Republicans’ average approval of Obama is a whopping 65%, topping the previous record held by Clinton of 52%. 88% of Democrats approve of the job Obama is doing while only 23% of Republicans approve.
A year ago, Barack Obama spoke of a new, post-partisan era in Washington in which our common American values and aspirations would finally overcome the petty divisiveness of politics-as-usual. Wonder what he thinks now?
Demagoguery in modern politics
In reaction to the Supreme Court’s landmark decision Citizens United v. The Federal Election Commission, Jake offered a nice analysis of the role of the 30-second ad in politics and mass decision-making.
I’d like to add to his excellent analysis a few reflections of my own, which I hope will complement his approach.
Jake’s concern is whether protecting television and radio ads as political speech will vitiate what it means to engage in democratic deliberation. Telling someone that X candidate is a danger to America’s prosperity through a rapid-fire advertisement likely to pelt the viewer with negative images seems more like manipulation that discussion.
But is the problem incendiary political speech or the avenues of dissemination? Read more
Senator Archibald Winchester is a fool! (message brought to you by Nike, Goldman Sachs, and the Teamsters)
Commercials, democracy, and Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission
What does it say about the legitimacy and viability of democracy if 30-second television ads, presenting clearly biased views of candidates, can change people’s votes? If democracy presupposes or requires a reasoned, educated populace, does the efficacy of television ads contradict this?
There are number of issues lurking here. First and foremost is the problem of how much time a rational, self-interested individual will spend educating himself on political issues, given that his vote will almost certainly not swing the election. How much time ought he spend, given his various other commitments and the limited amount of time in the day? We don’t talk much about the (civic) duty to stay informed and engaged. In the end, most people–independents included–don’t spend much time thinking deeply about politics. As a result, 30 second spots, repeated over and over again, can invade one’s brain effectively.
David Brooks in today’s New York Times:
I support the Weak and Feckless Approach. Trust is based on mutual respect and reciprocity. If, at this moment of rage and cynicism, the ruling class goes even further and snubs popular opinion, then that will set off an ugly, destructive, and yet fully justified popular rebellion. Trust in government will be irrevocably broken. It will decimate policy-making for a generation.
Following on my post questioning whether government should be allowed to regulate baseball given that the Major League Baseball league has an anti-trust exemption, I came across this Washington Post article suggesting that the Supreme Court was not likely to give the National Football League a similar waiver. In a case brought to the court by a hat maker which lost an NFL contract, justice questioning suggested that the court was inclined to rule that the NFL was a collection of independently owned teams, not a “single entity” that could be shielded from the Sherman Antitrust Act.
In August, I wrote about the Supreme Court case challenging restrictions on laws that limited spending by corporations on campaign adds. Today, the Supreme Court handed down their decision on the case, ruling that such restrictions are unconstitutional. You can read the full text of the decision here.
Tim Tebow, the former star quarterback at Florida, has filmed an anti-abortion Superbowl ad with his mother. The curiosity courtesy of HuffPo:
The group isn’t releasing details, but the commercial is likely to be an anti-abortion message chronicling Pam Tebow’s 1987 pregnancy. After getting sick during a mission trip to the Philippines, she ignored a recommendation by doctors to abort her fifth child and gave birth to Tim.
I think there are a lot of great arguments against abortion, and even some good ones that the government should ban the procedure, but I just can’t imagine that the best example is a woman ignoring doctors’ advice given for her own health. It seems like if you were going to pay +$20 million on a commercial you would attack the excesses of abortion, not the most defensible instances.
Part of me thinks that there is something appropriate in the anti-science stance here — making a strong moral stance in the face of expert advice from apparently amoral experts. But it seems more likely that Tebow’s popularity drove the commercial, not the relative desirability of his particular story.
What do we owe whistleblowers?
The Washington Post ran a lengthy story today about trouble inside the Securities and Exchange Commission with regard to whistleblowers. It’s not that the SEC, which regulates our stock and equities markets, has too few whistleblowers–it has too many.
Rather than rehashing the many instances related in the article of worthwhile tipsters being overlooked because the SEC has no better than an ad hoc approach to private tips, I’ll just pass along this one:
In the case of Bernard L. Madoff, whistleblowers had provided credible information to various SEC units for years. The most prominent of these informants, a Boston financial analyst named Harry Markopolos, contacted the enforcement division on numerous occasions, according to the SEC’s inspector general. In one instance, Markopolos provided a detailed explanation of why Madoff’s business was probably a fraud. Enforcement officials listened, but they dismissed him in their internal discussions. Two former enforcement officials told the inspector general that they discounted Markopolos’s information because he was not an insider in Madoff’s company.
So what’s the problem? Here’s what he SEC’s Tip Czar (I made that title up) has to say:
“There was no uniformity to it. Every division and office had its own system of recording, tracking or handling tips and complaints. That system was pretty rudimentary,” said Steve Cohen, the official tasked by Schapiro to overhaul the agency’s tips, complaints and whistleblower program. “We’re already working to acquire and deploy technology that centralizes all of the agency’s tips and complaints so they can be sorted, reviewed, analyzed and tracked.”
The ethics of whistleblowing tend to focus on whether the tipster herself has an obligation to come forward. Sometimes, the whistleblower knowingly participates in illegal activity before coming clean, but other cases can be more complicated. Instances of illegal pollution, for example, often involve a chain of individuals each dutifully doing their jobs, unaware that the end result of their respective decisions will be gallons of toxic waste headed for the river. The person who does discover the malfeasance may be far removed from the person who puts the whole chain into motion, and she may have little internal authority to put a stop to the illegal practice.
In those cases, some of those who study institutional responsibility suggest that the seemingly powerless — but aware — employee must give “voice” to the problem in one of a few ways: she could raise the issue internally; she could exit the organization; or, she could blow the whistle.
Once the whistleblower goes to the feds or the public, the movie versions of these stories take care of themselves. Public pressure may force a change or the law simply intervenes.
But the SEC’s myriad problems absorbing credible tips suggests there’s a big gap between bringing illegal conduct out into the open and smooth intervention by the law. That gap is filled with an enforcement body–the police, the FBI, the IRS, etc.
In this case, the problem seems relatively straightforward. Enforcement bodies have an absolute obligation to provide support to whistleblowers and tipsters. There should be easy to access the enforcement agency, to facilitate tipsters who may be under duress or restricted in communications. And there should be systems that can effectively distinguish between good and bad tips.
Whistleblowing is a moral imperative in instances of institutional wrongdoing precisely because good laws are meant to be enforced. If there were no faith in the rightness of the law, whistleblowers would have few incentives to risk their careers, their livelihoods and, occasionally, their physical lives. Similarly, without good ways to receive tipsters, the law abandons a critical weapon – the cooperation of good citizens – in an effort to maintain the peace.
Anything less than the best effort to attract, listen to, and act upon tips is a gross dereliction of duty.