Sunday, June 12, 2011

Do Politicians Get a Separate Morality of Their Own?

This interesting question links to a deeper and broader issue: Does the state -- properly -- work by different moral rules from those that apply to people in the private sector?

In his recent defense of Rep. Anthony Weiner's recent notorious behavior (I linked to it here), Matthew Yglesias made this provocative remark:
It has to be the case that the kind of character that matters for a public official isn’t the same as the kind of character that matters to be a good husband and father. After all, you want a responsible public official to neglect his family and friends (“hard-working”), to display a certain kind of ruthlessness and cunning (“negotiation”), to be a bit of a phony in certain situations (“diplomacy”), and all kinds of other things that don’t carry over straightforwardly from personal life to public affairs.
He is saying that Weiner's recent behavior -- lying copiously, naturally, and fluently for ten days until circumstances forced him to reveal the truth -- indicates a trait that, in a politician, is actually a virtue. As a defense of Weiner this is, of course, very lamest Yglesian sophistry, but there is more than a grain of truth in the underlying principle.

The late Jane Jacobs wrote a brilliant little book in which she argued that those who do "commercial work" -- trading and producing for trade -- and those who "guardian work" -- acquiring, exploiting, and policing territories -- properly do work by rules that are different in several important ways. One of the biggest is that while deception undermines the trust on which commercial work is founded, and must be scrupulously avoided in the commercial realm, it is in guardian work just another weapon, and its effective use can be positively virtuous.

As Will Rogers said, "Diplomacy is the art of saying 'Nice doggie!' until you can find a rock." In warfare, disinformation and misdirection can be more important than brute force.

When being interviewed by police who regard you as a suspect, it is well to remember that, not only do these people not have your best interests at heart, but it may even be permissible for them to lie to you -- both legally and morally permissible (it depends on what the lie is).

(Note to anarchists: all state workers are guardians, but guardian work is an incomparably wider category, coextensive with human life. Generally, hunter-gatherer bands are stateless societies, but they are also guardian organizations. If this is not obvious to you, take another look at the definition of guardian work, above. It is a legitimate and honorable sort of work, even if the state is not a morally legitimate institution.)

But the guardian's right to deceive is limited in two ways. First, the deceit must be for the sake of the guardian task, which typically is to fight off the enemies of the group they are guarding. Second, the guardian prerogative to lie, like its powers to maim and kill, must be rigidly controlled, if at all possible, by an array of other guardian traits, including discipline, obedience, honor, and -- perhaps most importantly -- loyalty. This is an emotional bond with colleagues and constituents which is supposed to deter the guardian from killing, maiming, or lying to them.

Weiner's lies, while revealing a stunningly impressive gift for deceit, were obviously not directed toward a legitimate guardian task and represented a breach of loyalty. They are evidence of his unfitness for this sort of work.
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