Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Morality of Process

You can always count on E.J. Dionne for a lucid application of the principles of common-sense liberalism. Here he’s channeling Ted Kennedy to cut through Republican noise—emitted in this case by Orrin Hatch—about the immorality of using the reconciliation process to pass ObamaCare (my emphasis):
“It was Kennedy, you'll recall, who insisted that health care was ‘a fundamental right and not a privilege.’ That's why it's not just legitimate to use reconciliation to complete the work on health reform. It would be immoral to do otherwise and thereby let a phony argument about process get in the way of health coverage for 30 million Americans.”
Dionne knows that Republicans don’t have a monopoly on reconciliation-related hypocrisy. For every video of a notable Republican commending reconciliation in connection with deficit-increasing tax cuts, you can find one of a notable Democrat commending the Senate filibuster as an essential instrument of republican government. What are we to make of all this hypocrisy? In Dionne’s eyes, the foolishness just underscores the priority of substance over process. Reasonable people always find a pretext for relaxing their procedural standards in a crunch because, at the end of the day, substantive values like upholding people’s right to affordable health care are incomparably more important than any procedural technicality.

When you put it that way, Dionne's argument is plausible. But it’s wrong.

To see why, we have to appreciate the difference between a public decision’s being right and its being legitimate. Rightness is a matter of a decision’s consistency with pertinent norms of political morality and prudence. Legitimacy is a matter of the decision’s having a procedural pedigree that makes it authoritative under our political system. A legitimate decision is one that we have good reason to abide by even if we think it’s wrong.

We can’t do without legitimate public decisions because we’re too ideologically divided to agree on what counts as a right decision. Everyone benefits from other people’s readiness to abide by the procedures that generate authoritative public decisions in our political system. We’re all better off being able to make legitimate public decisions even, especially, when we disagree about what we should decide. So each of us must want our peers to defer to established procedures when deference means reaching a public decision (or maintaining a status quo) they consider unjust or unwise. It’s only fair that we be prepared to undertake the same burdens with respect to public decisions with which we disagree. Anyone who holds the other side to procedural rules from which he exempts himself and his comrades is like a thief who calls the cops when someone steals his ill-gotten gains.

Consider two implications of how legitimacy enables us to cope with our ideological divisions:

First, in our capacity as good citizens, we’re required to give norms of legitimacy precedence over ideologically contested norms of political morality and public administration. Any time we treat our own substantive agenda as being more important than observance of an established procedural norm we're playing our political opponents for chumps. Dionne is making a species of civic irresponsibility into a matter of moral principle.

Second, the norms of legitimacy can’t operate as a method of dealing with ideological conflict if they are themselves ideologically contested. That means that we have a civic obligation to uphold standards of legitimacy that are as compelling to our ideological opponents as they are for us. When we tailor procedural norms to our ideological agenda, we’re drawing down on the stock of social capital that's vital to operation of a legitimate political system.

Nothing I’ve said gets us to the specific issue about whether it’s civically irresponsible to use to use reconciliation to pass ObamaCare.  That's a close call as to which civically reponsible people can reasonably disagree.  But it's a matter not of weighing procedural against substantive values, but of figuring out whether so using reconciliation is consistent with our civic obligations.  If Dionne were right, it would be utterly mysterious why today’s Senators bother to conjure up pretexts for and against using reconciliation. Their hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to civic virtue.

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