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Government and Going Through the Motions

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I.

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.

II.

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.

II.

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.

III.

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.
2. ???
3. Corruption!

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.

IV.

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…

V.

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.

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82 thoughts on “Government and Going Through the Motions

  1. A good essay.

    I still think that the very big elephant in the room is the inherent tensions between representative democracy and liberty. As in when do the necessities of majority will override liberty and when do they not.

    The tide is changing on marijuana. I think more and more people are seeing the drug war in this area as being a waste of resources.

    However, I don’t think this means people are going to be willing to legalize the sale of all narcotics especially harder ones like meth and heroin.

    I don’t think drug addicts or mere possessors belong in jail. However, I also don’t think that heroin or meth should be legal either. Is this a limit on liberty? Yes. But those drugs are poison. Meth is a poison to both the body and the environment.

    So when does a representative democracy get to place a limit on freedom and liberty in the name of public safety? A lot of libertarians seem to talk about safety as an overrated virtue but it seems that most Americans do not see it that way. This is true for economic security as well.

    I know a lot of people like to respond with the famous Ben Frankling quote but there clearly needs to be a balance. Telling people never to expect safety or security is very hard to do.

    Most people are not anarchists or believers in the the “night watchmen” state.

    This is not to say that you don’t bring up good points but I think you are going against the will of the majority and in a representative democracy, doing that often or always is not a way to get reelected.

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      • While this is a noble sentiment, I imagine that most people see the lives and areas of junkies and say no. I’ve heard anecdotes about high-functioning heroin users. I’ve yet to see it in practice.

        Keep in mind I am the kind of person who thinks the reason we will ever have a post-work economy has more to do with morality and politics than it does with technology and possibility.

        We could probably have an economy where people don’t work that many hours. I don’t think most people see this as desirable for a wide-variety of reasons.

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      • In england heroin addicts can get prescribed heroin in a cigarette. It allows them to taper off the drug or at least use it in a manageable form. Most of the negative health effects of heroin come from shooting up; diseases, wounds, infections, sharing needles, etc. It is possible to be functioning heroin addict if you can get the drug safely and in a safe form. Whether that is a good idea or not is a separate question.

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      • “While this is a noble sentiment, I imagine that most people see the lives and areas of junkies and say no.”

        We have to destroy their lives to save their lives is the retail version of we have to destroy this village to save it.

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      • That sort of verges on the cartoonish argument. That drugs, especially hard drugs, often hurt people and lead to bad results for them isn’t exactly news. That doesn’t mean they should be illegal or we should be jailing addicts or that the WOD isn’t often worse, etc, etc. IMHO we need hold at least two ideas in mind; drugs are often terrible things for people and the WOD does terrible things to people so we should pull it back and maybe even some drugs are to dangerous to be legal.

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      • Keeping some drugs illegal but going for treatment over incarceration tends to work a lot better, as I understand it.

        There’s a tendency to make things black or white — it doesn’t need to be.

        Heroin might be better kept illegal — there’s certainly quite a good case for it. But there’s also a very, very, VERY good case for saying that jailing heroin addicts isn’t really an optimal solution.

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      • NewDealer,
        you’re asking the wrong question. Plenty of docs are on painkillers, giving themselves the same sorts of injections as heroin users give themselves. We eventually catch a good deal of them, but they do manage to function reasonably well in the meantime.

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  2. The WOD and no knock raids are poor examples of the “secrets” issue. I’ve never heard those explanations for why they do those things. Surveillance is a good example. I’d say a reason why candidates say one thing and do another which you didn’t mention is inertia. Trying to change course on the WOD is difficult, the feds have only some power but far from all power do something about because of federalism and the political energy to do something takes away from other things. Since admins only have so much energy they try to spend it in the best way possible.

    Also, of course, the WOD etc are popular with many people so its not like its a freebie for O. I’ll point out here that health care reform polled strongly for many years until the actual debate hit and it became a bit more real and it was smeared with a lot of poo. Its always easy to say how changing X issue polls well now so just do it. But reality is a bit different. Doing something and it polling well are different beasts. Once you start making actual changes they will often be less popular and your opponents will start up the poo mortars. As some people like to correctly point out, laws are complicated and can have unexpected consequences. Changing laws is like that to. As things are changed they don’t go as planned and often not as well as expected. Also many people rightly proudly state how our system is designed with many choke points to make it hard to change. Hell some people even cheer gridlock, so it really shouldn’t be that hard to see why some changes don’t happen or very slowly. Doesn’t mean reformers should stop pushing, not at all, but effective reformers need a lot of patience and persistence.

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    • I have very, very often been told something to the following effect:

      “You don’t know what it’s like out there in the real war on drugs. Until you do, I don’t want to hear that legalization stuff. You have no idea what it’s like, and you never will.”

      Seems at least akin, no?

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      • Is that some secret knowledge? No i think thats different, maybe distantly related at most. But its not some secret only those in the know have. Its a retort to often simplistic arguments made by those against the WOD. Some of the most pro-WOD people i’ve met are former addicts, not cops or pols, but addicts who think booze and/or drugs are killing their communities. Do they have secret knowledge, no, but their experience is valid and needs a good answer from those of us who want to see less WOD.

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      • You might be right. While I’d been classing that as a “secret knowledge” argument, maybe it’s better placed elsewhere.

        Still, the going-through-the-motions explanation does seem to explain it. Outsiders may be needed for the kind of significant change I’d like to see.

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      • Domain knowledge? Relevant experience?

        Of course, some problems suffer from a “too close to the problem” issue as well.

        Personally, some of the problem is there’s a caricature of legalization as “legalize all drugs, everywhere” (as opposed to “legalize some, not others”) and then of course whether to continue with a law and order response to what’s left or work from a treatment response..

        Pot’s the only no brainer to me. Booze and nicotine are legal, pot should be — everything else, let’s run the numbers and see the studies. But pot? WAY too many people use it — it’s basically the modern “booze during prohibition” — and too many studies showing it to be, at worse, as bad as other legal stuff and not any worse.

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      • Well that is partially my point Morat. Once you get down to which drugs and how to do it then you are in the weeds of making policy which people, in general, find distasteful. They will complain about not enough of this or to much of that. Of course we should still legalize pot and i’d say a few other things, but recognizing the difference between something polling well and being a good idea vs. how sticky things get when you do them is an issue. Then someone will come along and just say legalize it all to avoid all that guff, thereby reinforcing the caricature.

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  3. Government has inertia. A President isn’t a king.

    All the good will in the world won’t help you change things if you lack the political capital to do so, or if you can’t get the rest of government on board with changing, or if you flat out just think it’s not a hill worth dying on.

    Offhand, I’d say it’s a combination of lots of things, depending on the exact “thing he’s not changing” in question.

    The Drug War as an example — the President is constrained by a lot of laws he can’t change, and that — realistically — he knows he can’t get changed. Not now. His executive orders and enforcement directives to the DEA and the FBI are fairly sizeable (although not as big as some would claim, either through law or through political reality), but refusing to defend a given statute or deprioritizing a given aspect opens him up to a lot of political attacks he may or may not feel is worth it.

    *shrug*. I give Presidents — Presidents of both parties — a lot of slack on this. Government doesn’t turn on a dime because there’s a new President (heck, we wouldn’t WANT it to), and even small changes in direction require either massive grassroots support (to pressure Congress) or vast expenditures of political capital.

    In the end, there’s really a limit on how much time, attention, energy, and political power a President can bring to bear. Like everything else, he’s gonna have priorities.

    I doubt either Bush or Obama really think pot should be illegal. Neither of them, however, felt it was a hill worth dying on when they’d be crucified by a number of powerful interests for trying. Not when they had other things — things they felt were more important — to focus on.

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      • Pretty much. I’ve seen the same thing with, well, any promotion.

        “When I’m boss I’m gonna do X, Y and Z” and then you’re boss and find that your choices weren’t what you thought they were, the consequences are suddenly right there in your face, and you don’t have the power, freedom, and ability to do what you thought you could.

        I see it in the business world often enough, and the few soldiers of my acquittance have complained about similar things.

        Or if you want to get poetic — the view from the top of the mountain is different from the view at the base. I’d be a little worried by somehow who got promoted who DIDN’T have to shift their priorities at least some.

        It’s not so much secret knowledge as it is…broader horizons. If you do X, you’ll lose a lot of support for Y and Z. What’s really important to you? You said you wanted to do all three, but now that you’re in the hot seat — either X and no Y or Z, or Y and maybe Z or Z and maybe Y but no X. Whatcha gonna do?

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      • It does. The president, his cabinet, and all the other people that come in with the administration are a tiny band compared to the permanent government. Even though they’re theoretically in charge, it’s difficult for them to remake things in their own image. You see this in business all the time: A failing company hires a CEO who has been highly successful, he brings in a new management team, and … the company still fails, because it’s mostly still the same people doing the same things that didn’t work before. The most a president can do is concentrate on a few big areas and try to make significant changes there.

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      • Mike: When people think that, they often think “bureaucracy” — like the DEA or the FBI or the civil servants even are some sort of huge weight.

        It’s not that. It’s Congress — Congress doesn’t change because the President does. Even if CONTROL of Congress changes, many of it’s members are the same — with the same drives, goals, and issues.

        And then there’s the law — the law doesn’t change. The Constitution, court precedents, current law and regulations — they aren’t swept away and made anew.

        And there’s a reason for this (the spoils system shows what happens if you get a little wild with that sort of thing) — processes in place, advisory boards and public comment notices and budget mandates that all conspire to make changes — big or little — fit into a box marked “Are you really, totally sure you want to do this?”

        Not even getting into the Senate, which was explicitly designed to bog things up. :)

        A new President has an old Congress (sure, it might have new faces and a new majority leader, but it’s 90% the same people). He has an existing law base, an existing Constitution, an existing regulatory framework with rules that take time to change. He’s got court cases and precedent. And he’s got a ZILLION lobbyists — who haven’t changed at ALL — with thick wallets and Congress’ number on file.

        In my experience, the civil service is actually probably the most response to a new President. (My experience has been limited to NASA, however). The President appoints a whole host of new leaders, and the civil servants take their cues and directives straight from them. Not that there’s not pushback (with NASA it’s generally of the “we’ve spent X billion on this and it’s ready to launch, if you cancel it to save ten million on launch fees, you’re not actually saving the tax payers money here. You’ve just burned the X billion we’ve spent and laughed in the tax payers faces” variety.), but….civil servants keep the lights on, work the pay system, and do a job — they don’t provide direction, just institutional experience.

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      • Well, to make an awful comparison, I’m reminded of the kids who run for class president in 6th grade. Once they get in power, they realize that they cannot, in fact, stem the homework tide.

        One would think that, say, a president could say something or other that would result in fewer doors of fewer dispensaries being kicked. Surely, somewhere, there is someone who might have the power to make that call.

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      • You can change the top N guys at the DEA, but it’s still the DEA, and it’s going to take an enormous amount of time, energy, patience, and luck to be able to change everything important about they way the do their jobs.

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      • And 14 years of it being a complete joke (as far as accomplishing its goals, not in terms of the damage it caused), and thousands of years of alcohol being part of everyday life.

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      • The problem is unless Congress acts, those dispensaries are still illegal under federal law.

        The problem here isn’t that the DEA is somehow ignoring the law. They’re actually going pretty easy. Let’s face it — if pot was a huge priority, they’d ALL be shut down.

        The problem is the law isn’t what you want it to be, and twenty or thirty years of law, legal incentives, and basic police culture are against the policy you want. (And hey, that I want too).

        The DEA isn’t exactly my favorite federal institution (it’s actually near the bottom), but in terms of the busts it makes and the resources it spends, those pot dispensary raids are basically token gestures.

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      • Hmm…..so let me get this straight. First black president gets elected. Gets accused of having terrorist sympathies, hating white people, ruining the economy, wanting to kill your grandma, and faking his birth certificate.

        And this is the guy you expect is going to stick his neck out for weed legalization? Yeah, not sure how that’s supposed to work.

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    • Morat20:

      “Government has inertia. A President isn’t a king.”

      Is this your excuse for Obama not keeping his promises? Why not just fall back on the old Dem excuse that it is all the Repubs fault?

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  4. I think that, at least when it comes to drugs, knowledge of all of the various exceptions comes into play.

    Well, it was okay for some people I know to do this but I wouldn’t want my children to smoke pot. Or, if they smoked pot, I’d want to make sure that they smoked pot the way that some of the people I know smoked pot, rather than became intense potheads.

    There’s this one guy I know who smoked pot and had a minimum wage job and a crappy apartment and he’s still smoking pot, he’s still making minimum wage, and he’s still got a crappy apartment. Only he’s 20 years older.

    This other guy I know who smokes pot, only smokes pot on the weekend, if at all, usually with a gathering of folks, and he shows up for work on time, gets projects, gets projects *DONE*, and gets promoted from time to time.

    What we want to do is make the former illegal and the latter something that the police never, ever notice (why would they?).

    So the War On Drugs, as fought, is the perfect solution. It lets the powerful *MAKE EXCEPTIONS*.

    See also: everything else the government does.

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    • What we want to do is make the former illegal and the latter something that the police never, ever notice (why would they?).

      When the latter guy’s supplier has branched out into harder stuff, and the guy is unfortunate enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time when making a buy. Which is why I supported the initiative here in Colorado — I think it makes it harder to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

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  5. “A good essay.”

    I disagree. It’s extremely wordy, and frankly the sort of thing written by a philosophy major working for a think tank who should be taken under the wing of a better writer (Julian, where are you?).

    I agree with the sentiment, and am d*mned near burned out with disgust at the gross failures, and the Nazi-zombie level of success of the deep state and the oppressive foundation of too much of society.

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    • Jason, I’d like to clarify – I agree with your sentiment, but when reading the article, I expected you to swiftly dismiss the ‘secret knowledge’ crap people spill, which could be done easily by pointing out the screw-ups/deliberate lies.

      But you went on this long, lingering meander through this, that and the other thing before making your point (if you did).

      For a persuasion piece, it was pretty bad.

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    • Odd. Julian was the philosophy major. I was a history major.

      I will say, though, that your comment confirms a suspicion I’ve had for a long time. I have always thought — without proof — that my prose quickly comes to resemble whatever prose I’ve been reading around the same time. This week it’s been Hegel.

      I’ll stop. I promise.

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      • “Odd. Julian was the philosophy major. I was a history major.”

        I took you for a philosophy major. I guess I shouldn’t apply for that ‘guess their major from their blog posts’ analyst job at that agency – uh – the Peace Corps, that’s the ticket! It was a job at the Peace Corps, and certainly not a secret govern – just remember I said Peace Corps!

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  6. I’ve never bought the secret knowledge argument. The sort of intelligence that Presidents get isn’t that obvious. They get sketches not maps.

    The idea that power corrupts is indeed pithy, but once you unpack it you see that it contains a lot. It is not so much that power changes anyone; rather power changes the dynamics of any decision that you have to make. It’s easy for someone with no power to say whatever he wants. It is very easy for a State Senator from Chicago to be for marijuana legalization, but it is very difficult for the POTUS.

    This change in decision dynamics gets at what may be the real issue. Presidents simply don’t have the power to make unilateral changes in policy. They have some latitude in the realm of foreign policy and not that much at all domestically. Just about everything that the federal government does is enshrined in law through the budget. If congress authorizes and funds a program, the President has to execute it.

    The President could certainly get away with lackluster execution of policies that he considers immoral, but where’s the incentive in that. Think of the drug war. You might imagine that were Obama given a congressional mandate to dismantle the drug war, he might pursue that vigorously. After all, that’s what politicians are supposed to do. They’re supposed to do something. In the absence of the possibility of dismantling the drug war, he still has to do something. That something becomes prosecuting the drug war just as vigorously as he might dismantle it, but he’s doing it “better” this time. It’s pretty much all smoke and mirrors.

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  7. A comparison can be made between liberals campaigning on reducing the police state, and conservatives campaigning on reducing the welfare state.

    For both, they swiftly realize that for the electorate, these are tropes, platitudes that get applause, but are not seriously thought through.

    How popular would Obama be- even among die hard liberal Democrats- had he taken a cleaver to the Military/ Security arm of government, shortly before America suffered another 9/11?

    How popular would a President Romney be among Tea Party Republicans if he actually cut spending that matters- to the defense and agribusiness pork consumers?

    Sure, there are committed ideologues like me and others here, who would be happy to walk the walk. But we are a tiny minority. Most of the executive power and regulatory power is actually popular. “Small government, and keep it out of Medicare”, and all that.

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  8. If Ron Paul somehow became president, he’d slash marginal tax rates, eliminate any federal civil rights enforcement, do away with OSHA and any other worker protections, and then do nothing about the WOD or the security state, because while he talks a good game there, they wouldn’t be priorities.

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  9. Another voice for putting responsibility on the structure of US government. Take for instance the UK, one parliamentarian remarked “In the last analysis, even if there has been a major fight, the Queen’s Government must get its business”. There is no such sentiment in the US Congress (gun control, immigration reform, various human rights treaties…). Compare a state of the union address and the Queen’s speech at the state opening of parliament. Two totally different animals, to make requests about the legislative agenda, as the president does, and to announce the legislative agenda as the Prime Minister does via the Queen. Consider the number and tenor of intra-party fights in the US versus UK. There are one or two subjects in all UK politics that can cause the kind of ruptures that occur with regularity in US parties.

    As for changing perspectives once in office, on matters of national security I think I buy the argument that being a candidate and being president are so radically different that one’s perspective shifts. I’m not sure at what stage a candidate or president-elect gets the presidential daily briefing, but I’d imagine that’s a routinely sobering motion to go through. Only the last line is necessary but:

    How many thousand of my poorest subjects
    Are at this hour asleep! O sleep, O gentle sleep,
    Nature’s soft nurse, how have I frighted thee,
    That thou no more wilt weigh my eyelids down
    And steep my senses in forgetfulness?
    Why rather, sleep, liest thou in smoky cribs,
    Upon uneasy pallets stretching thee
    And hush’d with buzzing night-flies to thy slumber,
    Than in the perfumed chambers of the great,
    Under the canopies of costly state,
    And lull’d with sound of sweetest melody?
    O thou dull god, why liest thou with the vile
    In loathsome beds, and leavest the kingly couch
    A watch-case or a common ‘larum-bell?
    Wilt thou upon the high and giddy mast
    Seal up the ship-boy’s eyes, and rock his brains
    In cradle of the rude imperious surge
    And in the visitation of the winds,
    Who take the ruffian billows by the top,
    Curling their monstrous heads and hanging them
    With deafening clamour in the slippery clouds,
    That, with the hurly, death itself awakes?
    Canst thou, O partial sleep, give thy repose
    To the wet sea-boy in an hour so rude,
    And in the calmest and most stillest night,
    With all appliances and means to boot,
    Deny it to a king? Then happy low, lie down!
    Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.

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  10. My suspicion has always been that some version of the “secret knowledge” explanation has been true, though the secret knowledge is just this: the federal government (and in fact most state governments) is so incredibly complex, with so many deeply entrenched interests and self-perpetuating systems of behavior and privilege, that your ideals get thrown out the window for you. I think pretty much anyone who gets close enough to the presidency to win it already knows this secret, however, and the ideals they express are, if sincerely wished, not sincerely aimed at. That is, they know damn well that they’re not going to change anything, because things don’t change.

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    • I think institutional inertia and the simple complexity of government institutions do speak volumes. An ongoing thesis of mine regarding the Obama Administration is that they’ve been trying (with or without success) to gradually shift the mechanisms of government, whether we’re talking about foreign policy, drugs, healthcare or surveillance. The steps they’ve undertaken aren’t always sufficient, they’re certainly not sweeping and they’re things that, on the whole require a timespan of 5-10 years to implement. It’s a thesis I’m thinking needs some more expansion in a proper full length post, but there is a certain knowledge of institutions that only comes from running them, and a crushing knowledge of just how little you can change them from the top.

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    • Federal employees are difficult to fire, I’m given to understand.

      They are not, however, difficult to throw away along with the entire organization to which they belong.

      When a system gets so complex that you can no longer manage it, there’s an obvious solution. Take off and nuke the entire site from orbit.

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      • Well, as a member of my own party, the Tear It Down Party (TID; we’re recruiting), I’m good with tearing it all down, but I’m afraid that things are so interwoven now that it makes little sense to even talk about doing away with any single major department or agency (or a few agencies) without a serious reworking of the entire system, which in addition to creating a whole lot of uncertainty outside of the government (in other words, pissing people with money off), would throw necessary services into chaos.

        For example, DOL is intimately intertwined with DHHS, which has about a gazillion subdivisions, including NIH and NIMH, which are deeply intertwined with NSF, and DHHS is also intertwined with DOE, and so on, and so forth. There are tens of billions of dollars, sometimes hundreds, flowing back and forth through these interconnected agencies. It’s a giant web, and nuking part will create giant ripples through the web, and break parts of it that weren’t nuked.

        But its worse than that. The system is itself self-perpetuating, because there are not only entrenched employees, but entrenched power. This is most obviously true of the national security state, but it’s also true anywhere there’s money and power, and there’s money and power everywhere.

        So, in conclusion, TID, recognizing of course that when you tear that down, you tear a lot of the “private sphere” down as well.

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      • Oh, it should be added that these federal agencies are so deeply intertwined with several different agencies in each state that the ripples get transmitted to the state systems as well, causing breaks and disruptions there as well. So if, for example, you fish with DOL, you fish with state-level unemployment insurance, subsidized child care programs, training and education programs, welfare type programs like food stamps, some kinds of disaster assistance, employment rehabilitation programs for people getting out of jail, etc., which then creates ripples at the county and city levels where some of these programs are implemented, as well as in businesses at all levels (since these programs work with private businesses in myriad ways).

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      • I suspect things are less intertwined than you think. Silos are a real thing in the public sector, and I strongly suspect you could prune several large agencies without there being much of an effect on the others.

        And if there would be an effect then that’s what restructuring’s for. Merge the disparate agencies into one, but with a smaller headcount.

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      • James is probably right, if the formation of DHS was any indication. I suspect, however, that pruning wouldn’t work quite as well not by dint of silo effects, but by the fact that many agencies have subagencies that do things that no one else has the institutional expertise to actually handle.

        For example, the Department of Energy is often a target for cut backs, but how many people know that things like maintenance of the nuclear weapons stockpile and tracking loose nuclear material are handled through them via national labs? If you got rid of the DOE and gave some of those functions to different agencies, you’d likely lose a fair bit of the synergy that comes from placing RERTR (reducing enrichment levels in test reactors) in the same hierarchical structure as the NNSA (nuclear stockpile agency) because they’re likely to end up in different agencies. (State for RERTR probably and DOD for NNSA)

        Honestly I think in some respects governance has outgrown government (say that three times fast) in many areas. What takes its place is an even more gaurgantuan and byzantine ad hoc arrangements of inter-governmental agencies that are also at the same time made of these inter-disciplinary agencies at the government level….and so on and so forth.

        The main problem isn’t anything but the sheer complexity of human society. I mean if you wanna tear that whole thing down and go back to being agrarian farmers or hunter-gatherers (after wiping out 98% of the human population) it might be doable to reduce complexity to a manageable level again.

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      • Also a lot of the inertia problems with government agencies often also comes from staffing issues: in that they have more responsibilities than they can safely discharge, hence they rely on either hoping for self-correction (and thus have status quo biases) or become very narrow in how they apply their mandates.

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  11. When you’re a candidate, it most advances your political interest to say you can provide liberty and security both in maximal, or at least very much sufficient, measure.

    When you’re in office, it most advances your political interest to do the calculus of figuring out which of those having a high-profile failure to provide most harms your political interest – and for these presidents that’s been thought to be security.

    It’s about that simple, I think

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    • I don’t even know if you have to go that far.

      When you’re running for office, you can run on high hopes and dreams and ideals. When you take office, you’re stuck with the ‘possible’. (Which itself is restricted to the subset of ‘the ones I have to pick and choose from a too-big list’).

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  12. An interesting essay, but there’s a point in it which I’d like to challenge:

    “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.”

    Put another way: “So my liberty DOESN”T end where your nose begins? ***POW*** ”

    Is the term “liberty” really being extended to include this “non-political liberty” which is simple physical capacity, in libertarian circles?

    If so, that’s a bad mistake; it plays into the hands of those who rely on the resulting conflation of political liberty with mere physical capacity to start off on the road that begins with

    “Well, you can’t have the liberty to murder, there have to be some restrictions on individual rights, come comrpomises and balances to be struck…”

    *compromise* *compromise* *compromise*

    …to “The government is us”; the idea of liberty as permissions rather than rights, granted by the State to the people rather than as constraints upon the State imposed by the people.

    “License to do whatever” is not “liberty” in any sense, it’s just that; a license to do whatever one is able to do within the limits of physical reality. Conflating liberty in any sense with physical capacity is an error the Left and conservatism could drive a truck through, and they already have.

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  13. Power corrupts.

    “This appeals to certain worldviews, and perhaps to Lord Acton’s, but not to mine.”

    Historical precedent works against this statement. Rebel leaders overthrow dictators and become dictators. The mistreated poor become rich and then mistreat the poor. Governments start idealistic then abandon their ideals. If “power corrupts” is too pithy for you, then try this one:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rCAGUlWfCRM

    It doesn’t happen immediately but, eventually, even the most idealistic in power start to think “Hey, I got a pretty sweet deal here.” or “Wouldn’t things run more efficiently if I allow a little metadata gathering?” The latter may even start with the best of intentions but, eventually, if idealism doesn’t fade, then the idealist is removed.

    Referencing a different conversation concerning comics, this may be why so many of us are drawn to stories involving Superman. Here is a guy who is, for all intents and purposes, God. If he chose to enslave us, he could. If he chose to slaughter us, he could. There is no way to hide from him and no way to resist him. If I took half the crap that Superman takes in a 12-issue run, I would probably have genocide on my hands. But what is his constant motivation?

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xeW-AMP87PM#t=01m04s

    Superman appeals to us deep down because he is the ultimate icon of idealism. No matter how much crap life throws at him, he never snaps and rarely has even moments where he is not continually standing for his ideals despite having the power to wipe us out as casually as we would flick away an annoying bug. Even when we attack him, he shows restraint. Even when we stumble and fall behind him, he patiently offers us a hand up. Even when we smack his hand aside, he offers us a smile and encouragement. Even when we scoff at his idealism, he continues to believe in us and shows us the way to achieve our best. We are fascinated with stories about Superman …

    Because we don’t have any.

    Because, when people attain power, their ideals erode to nothing.

    Because we wish to live in a world where power does not corrupt as opposed to the world we do live in.

    “Power corrupts” may be a pithy statement but it has been a fundamental truth of our existence since the first monkey slapped another one and took his bananas.

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      • I did read the whole essay. After you talked about knowledge, you said that you didn’t like “power corrupts” but then went on to say “performance of the obligations that come with power corrupts”. You say this because you wish to believe that we are not all bastard-coated bastards deep down but rather that there is a slow erosion of ideals that the exercise of the obligations of power entails as well as how easy it gets to erode those ideals with practice.

        I say “No, power corrupts.” It isn’t the exercise of the obligations of power. It is the power. Sometimes, it is that easy.

        Since you’ve made an assumption, I will make one in turn.

        I suspect that this essay is not really about whether or not power corrupts. I suspect that this essay is more about about avoiding the realization that you’ve been played. I would argue that, if John McCain had won 2008 and 2012 or Mitt had run 4 years earlier and won 2008 and 2012, you would be content to go with “Power corrupts. End of story.”.

        But you didn’t. You voted for Candidate Obama and got President Obama then you doubled down on that. Now you’re trying to reconcile how this could have happened. If we accept “power corrupts”, then you have to accept:

        1) that you got played. It is one of the worst feelings to know that you got played and that there is nothing you can do about it.

        and

        2) that, maybe, the Democrats and “the other team” aren’t really that different in practice. This is a more unpleasant conclusion because it means that you have been pinning your hopes and dreams to a party of falsehoods but that you have been deliberately blinding yourself and whittling away your own ideals when you vote.

        So, you cast about. You try to construct a narrative where your chosen candidate started with ideals and they just wore away rather than confront Occam’s Razor and accept that this was who they were all along. They weren’t Superman. They didn’t even start as Superman.

        So, I say again to you.

        “Power corrupts.” The person who is in office and is playing golf with Bob from the gulag is the same person you voted for except that the mask has been removed. There was no erosion of ideals through the obligations of power. This is exactly the same man you voted for. However you justify it to yourself for however long does not change the fundamental truth of those two simple words nor does it change how the story really ends.

        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y4yWkBenRsU

        or, if you prefer something more recent

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  14. A fourth theory, perhaps congruent with both the “power corrupts” theory and the supposedly “realist” theory, is that the system is so designed as to give a lot of incentives for self-aggrandizing power and also that the system is therefore “sticky.” For the “sticky” point, the president, or any executive, nominally has a lot of power to set or reset the priorities of the departments he/she oversees, but he/she meets resistance from the bureaucracies (whose members act largely in a manner that seems reasonable to them, given the incentives they’re under and the tasks they’re charged with.)

    I’m not trying to exonerate Obama at all, or President Bush, or President Rand Paul. They are (or were, or will be) responsible for their actions. But if we don’t recognize the institutional incentives that inform those actions, we’re just flailing in the water, screaming “how dare they!”

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    • Jason,

      Now that I’ve actually read your blog post instead of skimmed it (and “skimmed” suggests a deeper level of engagement than I committed before writing my above comment) I realize that you kind of accounted for my point, e.g., here:

      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.

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      • But in any Democracy, you must compromise. There’s no democracy without it.

        You can cleave you your principles all you want, but at best you end up standing alone shouting at the wind while ills you could have mitigated or even prevented pass before you.

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      • Morat:

        When I quoted Jason (and for whatever reason, the blockquoting I tried didn’t work, but the “compromises” part was his words from the OP), I was focusing more on the “obligations” part, somewhat akin to what aitch describes below.

        Jason’s reference to “compromises” did not strike me as referring primarily to the horsetrading your comment seems to be referring to, but as in “the ways in which one surrenders one’s principles in order to get things done.” Of course, in the democratic compromises you describe, one has to do that as well in order to get anything done. (That’s why I support Obamacare.)

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  15. I’ve never been too impressed by the secret knowledge argument as it applies to foreign affairs, and for pretty much the reasons you’ve clearly articulated. I mean, what type of unknown knowledge could their possible be that the US needs to maintain and expand its international surveillance program? Isn’t the answer really transparent: that there are bad guys out there who intend to harm Americans or US national interests? Christ, we hear that all the time, so it’s not like particulars are especially relevant.

    What is relevant, it seems to me, is that priorities I might have sitting right here, right now, on the outside of the governmental system looking in, would be radically skewed if I were on the inside and had tacitly accepted the personal responsibility, at a decision-making level (rather than a value preference level) to protect Americans and US national interests.

    Of course, that’s only one side of the coin, and a critique of institutional decision-making at the political level is being begged here. And I also get that your other thesis about liberty and the burden of justification the above view around a bit. But even then… I don’t think there is any secret knowledge which justifies politicians going thru the motions. I think, instead – and to the extent I agree that there’s something to the view – it’s that politicians (and President’s in particular) engage in decision-processes which are by definition! alien to most of us and are therefore unknowable. Which makes them sorta like a secret.

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    • Oh, and good essay. Alsotoo, I think you’re right that liberty restrictions bear the burden of proof, and that liberty cannot meet the type of burden most people impose on it

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    • The Secret Part is incredibly obvious. Above a certain level of authority, usually about the level of the flag officer in the military, it stops being about rank and starts being about personalities. In that rarefied, hugely anarchic atmosphere, it’s all about power alliances, never about loyalty. These people can all be bought and not just with money. Nobody tells the truth up there. There’s no truth to tell.

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  16. How about a third alternative?

    Politicians are lying scumbags that will do anything to obtain power and retain power. They’ll tell lies when it serves their interests and will flip flow if politically expiedient?

    I’m sure there are a few that are “seduced” by power after taking office. I expect there are much more than were allready willing to sell their soul first before obtaining power.

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  17. On a side note, I am currently reading De Jasay’s book The State. It is not easy reading, but is proving to be worth the effort. While camping I would often get frustrated by his convoluted sentences and read them aloud for the entertainment of my family and fellow campers. This consistently led to an odd mix of laughter and bewilderment.

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    • Do your fellow campers tend to read similar books, so that they have context for know just how silly the language is compared to other books with the similar kinds of ambition, or is it possible that, whatever sentences you chose to read to them on a camping trip from any non-fiction book you would be likely to be reading in your own time, they would think you sounded silly doing so?

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  18. Jason,

    This is an excellent post. My succeeding comments are ruminative, not critical. (Of course this comment is TL/DR, so there’s fair warning to everyone.)

    I can think of three other plausible reasons presidents “go bad” (or more likely contributing factors in what is surely a multi-causal outcome).

    The first is the problem of a prez’s historical reputation. I n our historical perspective we–meaning, at the least, presidential scholars, probably meaning most of the American public, and possibly meaning humanity in general–prefer strong figures. You can calculate as well as I exactly how many peaceful, non-power accumulating presidents are listed among our country’s greatest presidents. More importantly, presidents can calculate that just as well as you and I. They may truly prefer–in an ideal world–to not do what they do, but status is a huge motivational factor for humans (hell, for all social animals, based on the animal behavior literature). And they can always persuade themselves that they’re not over-doing it, certainly not like “that other guy” would.

    This is a particularly pressing issue with the rise of the national security state–the worst thing any president could do for his legacy is allow a preventable national security crisis to occur, or even to appear to make one more possible, so the incentive is to overdo the things that could, or just appear to the unthoughtful observer to, prevent such a thing from happening (except when it’s useful to manufacture an event, and then they can gain points by showing how effective they were in “preventing” it).

    Second, and I think much more specifically and significantly a cause, is that the press of business for presidents pushes them into operating in short-term mode, rather than long-term mode. This distorts their analytical capacity and gives them perverse incentives. So, “Yes, drone killings are bad and may lead to the Arab world hating us even longer than forever and ever, but I have a problem that needs to be solved right now, and we’ll take care of the long term when we get to it.” (Of course we never do get to the long-term, so the the next day’s, year’s, administration’s focus remains short-term.)

    Keep in mind that part of what made Nixon take the long-view in his foreign policy view of Russia and China was his enforced exile after sequential electoral defeats, during which he read more widely and deeply about international affairs, a rare background for a president. (But note also his short-term thinking in dealing with Vietnam…a subject that he had thought less about and really didn’t want as the central focus of his presidency.)

    Third, I am less sure than you that blaming it on human nature is selling humans short. We’re all self-interested creatures (which is not to say we’re solely self-interested; we are social animals after all), and power is, if not an end in itself, so intimately engaged with our evolved natures as to have the essential feeling of an end. We experience this desire for power everywhere–from spouses attempts to have more control over the other and be less controlled by them, to drivers who yell at other drivers in an attempt to dictate how they drive, to everyone–teachers, doctors, gangbangers–who demand respect (subservience, really) from others.

    But in addition to thinking about other sources of change, I wonder if the change we perceive is more superficial than substantive. The structure of our presidential candidate selection system has changed radically in the last 50 years, with the full development of the primary system. Prior to that the effective nominating power was in the hands of party insiders, who, while not unanimous in their interests and preferences, did tend to exclude many strong and dominant personalities, because anyone like that was sure to have pissed off just enough people to make their selection highly improbable. But now the nominating power is in the hands of the mass public, and the only ones who can stomach the campaigns, who have sufficient drive, are those who truly lust for power, or who have the narcissistic grandiosity to believe they are the most suitable for the job, and who will do what it takes to win. Those who sincerely abide by an ethical standard are severely handicapped.

    Consider Obama, for example. In no way was he qualified to be president after just being in state level politics and then a couple of years as senator, yet he was either easily persuaded to run or believed that narcissistically in himself all along. And let’s not forget that he broke his first promise long before he became president, even before he had secured the nomination, when he broke his pledge to accept federal campaign and abide by the attached spending limits–that ethical “commitment” was abandoned just as soon as it became inconvenient to his prospects. So did he really change, or did the opportunities and demands of the office just give more opportunity of full expression of what was already there?

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  19. Good post, Jason. And a lot of good comments as well. Some of which, like JH’s first point above, nibble at what seems to me a pretty simple explanation for a lot of this. Simple risk aversion.

    Imagine for a moment that you’re O in his first days or weeks in office and you get a briefing from the NSA on their Metadata and Prism programs. Assume also that the director of the NSA actually tells you the whole truth about these programs. Now assume the best of O and that he is genuinely concerned–appalled even–at the scope of these programs and their sketchy-at-best constitutionality. What do you do?

    These are secret programs, remember. The public knows nothing and most of Congress knows not much more than nothing. You’re also politically astute enough (let’s at least grant him that!) to realize what a shitstorm will result from revealing these programs.

    Do you a) reveal the existence of these programs and immediately dismantle them, b) keep their existence secret and immediately dismantle them, or c) continue the programs and cross you fingers hoping you can keep them secret?

    Option a) seems like the “best” option, in the sense of public transparency and fidelity to constitutional principles. BUT… the Repubs have been pretty darn successful for the last 30 or 40 years in painting the Dems as being soft on defense. And you’re not only a Dem but you’re the first black president (yes, it matters) and, for God’s sake, your middle name is Hussein! So immediately half the country is going to scream about you selling out to your Muslim brethren, no matter that you’re not at all Muslim– that simply won’t matter politically. And God help your pointy little soul should a major terrorist strike occur on U.S. soil on your watch, an attack that could even remotely plausibly have been prevented with those programs in place.

    Option b) avoids the immediate fallout, but unlike option a) you don’t even get the benefit of making staunch civil libertarians happy and leaves you with nothing but downside risk. And not just political risk but real physical risk as well, that real live Americans may end up not so live any more. Because it’s undeniable that constitutional protestations notwithstanding those programs may very well succeed in thwarting a major terror attack.

    Option c) sucks. But quite honestly it sucks less than the other two options. Ideally, such programs would have been crafted with much more attention to constitutional principles in the first place but that’s not the hand you were dealt.

    It’s like discovering that someone has slipped you an ace under the table at a card game with a lot of chips in the pot. If you reveal the ace, either on purpose or by accident, you get accused of cheating and shot. Even if you don’t want to cheat it may be a lot safer to just go ahead, use the ace, win the pot, and hope you don’t get caught.

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