Monday, February 8, 2010

Democracy and Double Standards

Paul Krugman has had it with the Senate (my emphasis):

"The truth is that given the state of American politics, the way the Senate works is no longer consistent with a functioning government. Senators themselves should recognize this fact and push through changes in those rules, including eliminating or at least limiting the filibuster. This is something they could and should do, by majority vote, on the first day of the next Senate session."
It’s easy to sympathize with Krugman’s frustration. Any conscientious democrat should be appalled by a decision-procedure that allows the votes of 41 Senators, most of them representing small-population states, to outweigh the votes of their 59 colleagues. I’m happy to stipulate that the Senate’s unlimited-debate-rule is a bad one. Yet that doesn’t tell us what to make of the fact that, less than five years ago, Krugman was portraying Republican threats to change rules permitting the filibuster of George Bush’s judicial appointments as irresponsible extremism.

I can’t get too excited by the element of hypocrisy in Krugman’s readiness to invoke this double standard. Different standards of objectivity apply in different intellectual contexts. I’m not qualified to judge how intellectually scrupulous Krugman is as an economist. But I presume that economics is an enterprise as to which the most exacting intellectual standards apply, and that Krugman couldn’t have won a Nobel Prize without meeting them.

In his Times op-eds, however, he never hides the fact that he’s writing as an advocate for progressive causes in an adversarial political system. In that capacity, Krugman uses every argument at hand to win the point at issue, even when it’s inconsistent with arguments he used in the heat of an earlier battle. I don’t hold that against him any more than I’d hold it against a lawyer for zealously promoting his client’s case by making arguments that are inconsistent with arguments he made in behalf of other clients in other cases. The point of advocacy, whether it’s legal or political, is to advance a cause by any permissible means, not to enhance the advocate’s reputation. If Krugman’s willing to sacrifice some of his reputation for objectivity in a good cause, that’s his business.

His resort to so blatant a double standard is a little harder to excuse, however, in his capacity as a citizen. Let’s pursue the analogy between a political partisan and a trial lawyer a step further. The lawyer has a professional duty to represent his client’s interests zealously. But, in discharging that duty, he’s constrained by more urgent duties that he incurs as an officer of the court (e.g.his duty not to suborn perjury).  Every lawyer's subject to a code of legal ethics that forbids him from promoting his client’s interests in ways that undermine the fairness of the legal process. When he cuts these ethical corners, he’s not just a hypocrite, he’s a legal parasite; he’s trying to secure his client an advantage by exempting himself from professional obligations that he necessarily wants every other lawyer to discharge.

In their capacity as citizens, political partisans have an analogous obligation to pursue their agendas in ways that don’t undermine a public decision-making process that gives all political contestants a fair shot at advancing their interests and their ideals. That means, among many other things, that the losers of the last election are obligated to exercise a principled self-restraint in exploiting opportunities to frustrate the winner’s governing agenda. It doesn’t mean that today’s losers need to be chumps; they're obligated to restrain themselves only insofar as they reasonably expect that today’s winners will reciprocate if and when the electoral tables turn. When political contestants push the limits of what’s permissible, they drain their opponents’ reservoir of good faith, inciting ever more unprincipled partisanship among an ever wider circle of people.

It’s not always clear when the line separating permissible partisanship from irresponsible obstructionism has been crossed. The filibuster is a case in point. Although it has long been permissible under Senate rules, over the last twenty years Senate minorities have exercised less and less discretion about resorting to it. So both Republicans and Democrats have reason to complain that they’re more sinned against than sinning in this connection. Yet that doesn’t change the fact that, wherever we draw the line between irresponsible and loyal political opposition, it has to remain in roughly the same place when control of the government passes from one side to the other.

Seen in this light, invoking double standards about upholding established public decision-making procedures isn’t just a matter of intellectual hypocrisy, it’s an abdication of civic responsibility. Krugman undoubtedly believes that, were the Democratic majority to open its next session by abolishing the filibuster by a majority vote, it would just be playing tit for tat in a game the Republicans started. Maybe that’s even true (although there’s no denying that, for one reason or another, the Republicans stepped back from the brink when it came to abolishing judicial filibusters). But it doesn’t make it any less astonishing that Krugman never even thinks of asking whether changing the rules so drastically in the middle of the game is a civically responsible thing to do.

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