How to Not Talk About Policy
Matt Yglesias says that his years in D.C. have made him more respectful of the deep and authentic ideological differences between people, but more shocked at "the high degree cynicism and immorality displayed in big-time politics."
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 D.C. 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'd add to this: 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. That's a very mean thing to say. Senator so-and-so doesn't want to kill people, he just wants to be reelected. But that's what he's doing. He has constituents and polls and pressures. Similarly, a lot of the congressmen who are opposing health-care reform are, again, ensuring that tens of thousands of people will die from inadequate access to health care. But you're not supposed to say that.
It's a bit weird. Obviously, you can make the argument that a philosophical opposition to the public option is more important than 100,000-plus lives over a 10-year period, or you can say that a cost-benefit analysis suggests that the expense of saving those people is too great, or you can try and make an argument that more lives will actually be expended because the health-care system will sharply deteriorate.
But no one ever has to make those arguments directly because these 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. This also has the side impact of making policy seem much more boring than it is, because what's interesting and immediate about policy is what it does, but we tend to focus on how it works, and whether it can pass.
August 20, 2009; 12:48 PM ET
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