Government and Going Through the Motions
Why is it that candidates who favor de-escalation of state power — in the drug war, say, or on privacy violations, or in a more restrained foreign policy, or on police militarization — Why do they always turn into presidents who speed off in the opposite direction? Or — simpler — just why is the new boss always the same as the old boss?
Democrats, I’m looking at you: Before Obama, it was Clinton, too. On these matters I never expected much from the other team, but that’s because they never promised much. (Granted, W. did infamously run against nation building, and then September 11 Changed Everything. But I digress…)
Two cases in point before the analysis: videos comparing Obama’s views on the drug war and on dragnet surveillance, before and after he took the White House:
The disconnect is uncanny. It begs for explanation.
One theory that tries to explain this disconnect — among many, many other disconnects of its kind — is beloved of those who pride themselves on their realism. It posits that, on taking office, leaders gain access to secret knowledge: If we only knew what our masters now know, we would change our minds as well.
How this passes for realism, I can’t say. It’s about equal parts supposition (there is relevant secret knowledge!) and counterfactual (it would change your mind!).
Of course, it’s always possible that secret knowledge exists. That’s what makes the theory so difficult to exorcise. Maybe there is some secret knowledge — well, certainly there’s quite a lot of it — and maybe some of it would change my mind. Who knows?
That’s also what makes it dirty pool. The doctrine of secret knowledge isn’t falsifiable — no matter how many possibilities get shot down in this area, there might always be some other secret knowledge, some item still more esoteric and still more compelling. It’s just that we in the unwashed masses don’t know about it yet.
All those imaginings add up to a free pass — a free pass for anyone who can plausibly claim secret knowledge. That’s a lot of people, and the pass doesn’t expire for a very, very long time — and then the policy debate is moot. Why did Mao plunder the countryside? Why did Pinochet deploy the death squads? It doesn’t matter anymore, does it? Well then, never mind. That’s how the theory of secret knowledge works.
The underlying problem with secret knowledge is akin, fascinatingly, to Anthony de Jasay’s argument for the epistemic presumption of liberty: Claims that an individual should not be at liberty to perform a certain action can be verified – that is, such claims need, and we can usually supply, at least one good reason backing them up. “Why shouldn’t I do this?” someone might ask. “Because you will hurt an innocent bystander as follows,” comes the answer. And there we have a good reason.
This is why we properly require all claims of the form “you should not be at liberty to perform this action” bear the burden of proof: It’s a burden that can be defined and met. Some restrictions on liberty — liberty here taken in its very widest sense, as the purely unconstrained license to do whatever one wishes — some restrictions on this kind of liberty may be, and clearly are, quite proper. So let’s define them.
As de Jasay notes, however, claims that an individual should be free to do something typically can’t meet the burden of proof in the same way.
“I should be free to do this,” says the individual.
“No you shouldn’t,” says the state. “You will hurt an innocent bystander as follows.”
“Actually, no,” says the individual. “Here is my evidence, which disproves that contention.”
“Well,” says the state. “You might hurt an innocent bystander in this other way.”
“Actually, no,” says the individual. “That theory is mistaken as well.”
“Well,” says the state, “I have another theory…”
The state could always have another theory. And there might always be some other, totally unknown reason why the individual shouldn’t act a certain way — and that reason might, in fact, be a good reason for a prohibition. We just haven’t thought of it yet. Hey, maybe we never will.
But prohibiting actions on the basis of “there might be a good reason to prohibit, I just haven’t thought of one yet” is silly. Were we to go on that standard, literally everything would be prohibited — forever. To be logically consistent as well as workable in practice, we must presume that liberty persists, at least until it’s proven otherwise. Which, as I’ve said, it can be.
Getting back to the examples in section (I.) — in each case, the state actions in question amount to restrictions on individual actions. State actions typically do; that is, after all, their purpose.
The drug war, the interception of electronic communications, even no-knock police raids — all of them might conceivably be justified by some evidence, somewhere. But it does not justify an action merely to say so.
Ultimately this stuff about secret knowledge is just a bunch of fanfic for executive power. We don’t need a reason for liberties — what we need are reasons for prohibitions. And articulate them clearly, if you please. Do not assert their mere existence, devoid of content. Epistemology itself protests against you.
That is, we need supply no reasons for the state to do nothing. We need only reasons for the state to do something.
A second theory for why good candidates go bad is an old friend: power corrupts. That’s pithy, but as it’s usually stated, it lacks a convincing causal mechanism:
1. An apparently decent person gets power.
Appeals to human nature sell humans short. In a way, they’re even worse than a cheeky line of question marks: They say that under the surface, we’ve been monsters all along. All that we purportedly un-corrupted little people lacked was the right opportunity.
This appeals to certain worldviews, and perhaps to Lord Acton’s, but not to mine. The fact remains, however. Power creates a horrible disconnect.
So let’s try to state it differently: Performance corrupts. That is, it’s not just about having power. It’s that power means a set of obligations, and the process of fulfilling obligations — even insincerely — is ultimately what’s compromising. Compromise your principles often enough, and the compromises take over.
We’d like to think, all of us, that we are impervious to such drip, drip, drippings. We aren’t. A sensible politics will recognize this. We tend to become on the inside the things that we perform on the outside.
Examples of this expectation and associated tendency are so numerous that they might fairly be said to constitute the government.
The executive is expected to defend the laws of the United States in court. Any such defense means going through the exact same motions that a true believer would much more happily go through. Going through motions is easier if you do believe. It’s harder if you don’t. Choosing the path of least resistance means becoming a true believer in the actions of the state.
The Obama administration shook things up considerably when it declined to defend the Defense of Marriage Act — as if these, at long last, were some motions that it simply didn’t want to go through. We can debate the legal merits of that decision, but the psychic impact should be clear. This was a type of person they would not be becoming.
Fake-it-til-you-make-it happens in religious conversion, too. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But it is commonly noted that one can go through the motions of a religious observance — interestingly, in any religion whatsoever — until the spirit eventually takes over. How do you suppose it did that? You went through the motions, that’s how.
It’s also a lot like the closet. As they say, at some level I always knew I was different. But I had a role to play, the role of a presumed heterosexual in a conservative family in a conservative city. I performed that role. No, that’s not right. I believed that role. It’s hard to explain now. I’ve lived nearly as much time out of the closet as did in it. But the role was convincing. I fooled everyone. And the one thing I will always remember about it — it was so, so damn easy.
It didn’t change my orientation. In that sense at least it wasn’t easy. But there’s definitely a reason why it’s hard to come out. The reason is that going through the motions gets into your soul. It becomes routine. It’s only later that you realize it’s a lie. And yet, for a time, you keep right doing it anyway. Because it’s easy. (Compare: The many, many ex–drug warriors who now want to dismantle the drug war. All that they lack anymore is the power, which formerly they maybe had.)
The power of habit colonizes the mind. The power of the friendly, merely human intra-office connections. The power of not rocking the boat. The power of our otherwise laudable habit of not being a total dick to everyone around us. Candidates, I’m told, must be particularly good at this if they want to win.
Oh, and Bob from the accounting team of the Gulag division wants to play golf on Saturday…
All of which is to say that the reasons that animate government action are radically different from the reasons that political philosophy summons up to justify government action. In almost no field, I think, are theory and practice so far removed as in politics.
Don’t get me wrong. I adore political theory, and I suspect that our governments would be better if they were more like theory and less like practice. In so, so many senses. But well, there you go. You do like golf, don’t you? And Bob’s an okay guy…
Image credit: Penn State Special Collections Library.