October 2013
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The Ethics of a Government Shut Down

by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

There is an ethicist whose blog I casually follow. He swings right where I veer left, and I find his opinionation irritating but interesting in case, through my own political suppositions, I have missed something.

He sent off a blast on the government shutdown the other day which described it as:

the consequence of an important budgetary policy stalemate in an attempt to force negotiation and reconciliation--a maneuver which has the unavoidable collateral effect of causing inconvenience and hardship to many, but in which causing that pain is not the objective.
I think maybe the guy should take off his ethicist hat, because he just said that blue collar government workers who are furloughed right now, frightened about groceries and the mortgage, and not sure they will ever receive their back pay, are collateral damage like napalmed Vietnamese children.

He spotted the ethical issue at the core of the shut-down and then, shame on him, came out the wrong way: its a classic Kantian ends vs. means situation in which the people who are unpaid (while still being expected to work, or everything really would screech to a halt), or are being harmed by the shut-down of programs, and even those who uselessly bought airlines tickets or gasoline to visit federal parks, are all being treated as means, not ends, mere eggs to be broken to make a savory small-government omelet.

In fact, the shutdown fails Kant's other test, the categorical imperative, where we are all called upon to act in that way which we would be satisfied to see everyone act. The thirty or forty mad extremists who are shutting down the government today, in their Dread Certainty, think its an acceptable tactic for them only, because they are So Special and their cause So Important. But if every legislator advancing every agenda equally important to her felt entitled to use this tactic, the government would shut down all the time, by people who are, say, defending (or trying to end) the chinchilla subsidy, or making sure a new federal prison gets built in their district (or doesn't), or who want to ensure the flouridation of water, (or stop it because it might sap our precious bodily fluids).

Don't try to tell me those causes aren't as important to the people who believe in them: we are all legends in our own mind. Anyway, nobody in Congress has a right even to claim to be thinking on a Kantian level; legislators in the majority always use tactics they bitterly criticize when in the minority. Its never the tactic itself that is immoral in anyone's hands; its always, I can use it because I am the Good Guy, and you can't because you are Bad.

Nothing human is alien to me; but I am having a hard time standing in Tea Party shoes, trying to understand the white guys smiling jubilantly about the government shutdown. That unaccountable smile reminds me of that on the faces of the September 11 attackers walking through airport security in Maine before the hijacking, or the persistent smile on the face of Arthur Bremer, the schizophrenic who shot George Wallace during the 1968 presidential campaign. In each case, the smile expresses, "I desperately want to kill people, and have just reached the point at which nothing is going to prevent me". If it was even all right to put people out of work to force a policy outcome on government, if these guys were actually worried about causing "unavoidable" pain, you would think they would be solemn about it, right? The jubilation suggests sadism, that they relish the harm they are about to do.

Well, I can come up with one somewhat less culpable possibility. Some of the chattering on the cable news shows has suggested that, in the very insular Rush Limbaugh/Fox News bubble in which these men live, they may be actually unaware that when they talk about "government" they mean human people, some of them blue collar and struggling, and not some kind of fat, disgusting Jabba-the-Hutt-like entity which deserves to be strangled.

Early in criminal law class in law school, we learned that most states will exculpate a killer who, when he carved up an elderly woman, actually thought he was slicing a tomato. Maybe that person's smile means, "Gosh, I cut that tomato very neatly! Really diced that thing into perfect, equally sized little cubes!" But in that case, exculpation means being committed to a criminal mental hospital for the rest of life, not being congratulated as a hero on right wing talk radio.

Another feature of the shutdown involves the extreme weakness of the Republican leadership. I am old enough to remember with increasing fondness old-fashioned House Speakers like Tip O'Neill. People who ran their majorities with a sure fist. Piss off O'Neill and you would get a permanent assignment to the SubCommittee on Toilets, never get to co-sponsor an important bill or appear with the President in a photo opp. If you didn't get on with the Speaker, you could serve thirty years in Congress in complete obscurity. Back then, I thought he was a tinpot dictator, but now I know that that's how legislative business gets done. Now, the very personalities who would have wound up in the crapper subcommittee forty years ago are calling the shots, bullying the speaker into joining their radical and unethical initiative. It makes me wonder what the House today even needs a Speaker for? What is Boehner actually doing which couldn't be accomplished by a cardboard sign with the words, "Whatever You Say"?

I am most worried by the harm to innocent people, but do these Tea Party folk realize what they are doing to the full faith and credit of the government? Why would anyone take a government job in the future if once or twice a year, you won't get paid? What happens to our bonds, to foreign governments we make commitments to, to the people we ask to risk their lives for us? The only possible rationale would be, "the harm we do today prevents a greater harm", but that is comparable to mercy-killing the country right now because you think its going to die a worse death later. Suppose you're wrong? And who made you God?

The extreme self deception of Ted Cruz and his Moonies is illustrated by the notable absence of jubilant crowds exhibiting that same smile. A good thought experiment before cynically, manipulatively committing to any course of action in a democracy would be whether it creates a positive photo opp. This one did-- for the other side. There are pictures of veterans who can't get to the war memorial they wanted to visit, but none of happy crowds applauding the fact they can't.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, can you say, "Oligarchy"? Another thing that's happening to me as I get older is the perception gets stronger that we rarely really talk about what we are talking about. A friend who visited Soviet Russia told me that when an acquaintance of hers wanted to say "Stalin", he stroked his upper lip to indicate a big mustache, rather than saying the name. In a rowboat, in the center of a lake, alone with her. And he was courageous, because if you have to do that, why not just stay off the topic altogether? I also remember a report of some other ideological nation in which rather than saying "official corruption" you said "the usual considerations" or some such. In Nazi Germany, murder was called "special handling". In Harry Potter, Voldemort is "he who must not be named".

In the U.S. we similarly no longer talk about critical stuff, or at least don't call it by name. A truthful disclaimer on the first page of the Times business section would say: "Investing in Wall Street stocks is a game you probably can't win, especially if the first notice you get that a stock is hot is reading about it here. The only people who make money in that game are the banks and brokers, our advertisers." Yet decade after decade, the paper runs the same investment advice columns, telling you how to allocate your money for retirement, explaining the difference between growth stocks and those that produce dividends, etc. Coverage on climate change fails to describe it clearly as the human-caused calamity which has the capability to transform First World into Third World countries (hurricane Sandy was a wake-up call, and the hurricane which actually destroys Manhattan will be the actual illustration).

Similarly (this is where I was heading, in my circular style), how do we truthfully talk about democracy without ever mentioning oligarchy? That's what our democracy has degenerated into, not the mob rule the Framers feared. There is hardly any political or public development which you couldn't understand better by asking "What do the billionaires want?" as part of your calculations. If you try to figure out why John Boehner would be so frightened of some putz who got elected yesterday (the same type whom Tip O'Neill would have used his huge thumbs to fold into an origami hat, which he then would have worn on his huge head) its not the fear that this putz's best college buddy will show up out of nowhere and run against him in a primary. Its the fear that the buddy will do so backed by Koch Brothers dollars. Yet the bulk of reporting on the shutdown, or any other issue, never mentions the billionaires in the background. Its a scenario like Neil Gaiman's American Gods in which most people don't know the gods exist, and those who do never talk about them to outsiders. Come to think of it, Harry Potter, wizards, muggles: same trope.

To be clear, I don't think American billionaires are one scary unified bloc, like the groups people are talking about when they mutter about "Freemasons" or the "Trilateral Commission". George Soros, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett are individuals; Soros is a man of the left, and the other two have at least some liberal leanings. When you read the history of the French Ancien Regime, it is easy to think the nobility is a bloc, but come the revolution, people peel away to join the other side like LaFayette and Mirabeau.

However, John Boehner doesn't want to piss off even one billionaire. What endangers democracy is that a single very rich person is increasingly able to buy outcomes. The fact that Justices Scalia and Thomas openly travel to Koch Brothers events, at which every panel discussion involves destroying liberalism and consolidating conservative (extreme conservative) control over the U.S., is a scary sign of the times.

In a perfect world, the liberal billionaires would neutralize the conservative ones. In our world, it doesn't work that way. George Soros doesn't seem to think its his job to spend millions of dollars every time he sees the Kochs do so. Anyway, if he did, this still wouldn't be a functional democracy, but more like a feudal province, in which we hope that Lord Schmord shows up to stop Lord Blord from burning the crops.