Monday, March 08, 2004
This is a paraphrase from memory, so don't take it too seriously. But here are my notes from that day (yes, I take notes while listening to the radio):
mort krim, national farm report
-control the high ground
-the Chinese have restarted their space race
"For the record the U.S. is committed to the explanation of outer space strictly for peace purposes, but from the earliest days of competition with the Russians "
Perhaps it goes without saying, but the National Farm Report is aimed at a conservative audience. What struck me when hearing this particular segment was the enthusiastic endorsement of secret defense programs. The prospect of those kinds of programs gives me the willies, so it seemed odd, and maybe even significant, that their existence would be reassuring to conservative listeners.
Here's an argument I often hear from conservatives, but never hear from liberals: "You say the President shouldn't have done X, but you have no standing to criticize him because he has all kinds of information that you don't have."
There's a connection here somewhere. I thought about posting something about this at the time, but I didn't really know what to do with it, and the Mars story passed into irrelevance pretty quickly. So this unfinished thought has been rattling around in my head, lonely, for over a month.
Now I think I've got something to connect it to. On a conservative blog I read fairly regularly, this cropped up last week. The wallet test:
And the final question - would I have enough trust in the man to hand him my wallet with 5 $100 bills in it - and then leave the room for an hour? Then come back, get my wallet back - and leave without checking it, KNOWING it would have been safe? Do you get that feeling when listening to Kerry? When watching him?
Oddly enough, I got that feeling from Bush. But not from Gore.
And I won't vote for Kerry if I don't get it from him. [milblog]
There are lots of reasons why I don't think the wallet test is a very good way to pick a president. To begin with, politicians are generally so rich that the amount of money in any normal person's wallet would be insignificant to them. More to the point, it's difficult for me to understand how an honest politician could get elected. And, given the limited information voters have, I see no reason to trust the assessments voters make of the personal character of politicians.
Standing over and above all of these considerations is another: I don't see how a scrupulously honest politician could be effective.
What I think Mort Krim's high frontier story draws attention to is the fact that conservatives share this last view. That is, they don't think it's possible to expect complete honesty from government officials, especially where national security is concerned. Given that view, it makes some sort of sense to demand that public officials be persons with great personal integrity.
One problem with this position is that the political process doesn't give us any real insight into the candidates' personal integrity. What we get are benign public statements and carefully crafted imagery both designed to convince us of the high moral character of the Great Man. And, from the other side, we get attack ads aimed, mostly, at personal integrity.
A more serious problem is that it utterly divorces public integrity from private character. So George Bush lied about WMDs? He must have had a good reason, after all he's a man of great personal integrity. This gets you uncomfortably close to the sort of logic that undergirds conspiracy theories.
But given the admission that full public integrity is undesirable, what alternatives are there to a reliance on private integrity?
I don't have anything like a full answer to this question, but I can suggest the beginning of an answer.
To begin with, the impracticality of full public integrity doesn't mean that all governmental secrecy should get a free pass. To take a topical example, it seems to me that the Bush administration should have been much more honest about pre-war intelligence. Changing EPA reports so that they don't reflect the best science on environmental threats also strikes me as beyond the pall. As to where the exact limits are, I don't know. We don't often discuss such limits, but perhaps we should. My feeling is that there ought to be a presumption against secrecy and misinformation.
It also seems to me that voters ought to vote according to issues rather than according to perceptions of personal integrity. I don't think much of Clinton's personal integrity, but he was fairly good on the issues. At any rate, he was better on the issues than any Republican was likely to be. Progress on issues also has the merit of verifiability.
As I reread these last two suggestions they strike me as the most obvious of banalities. I would delete them and try again, except that it also seems to me that, for some reason, a lot of conservatives don't agree. If that's right, then there's got to be something about these seeming banalities that strikes some people as wrong. I just don't see what it could be.