« President Obama proposes to re-kill the D.C. voucher program | Main | "Merits and Motives": A response to Bob Hockett »

February 15, 2012

Merits and Motives

Is he an unjust, spiteful meanie or merely an obtuse technocrat?  That is the question I'm left with, as concerns President Obama, upon reading Rick's post just below.

I had not read or heard about a discontinuation of appropriations for the DC school voucher program, and am accordingly glad that Rick has brought it to our attention.  While I'm not yet in a position to opine on the merits (I'll rectify that soon), it does seem to me that the motives question can be at least partly addressed even now.

I am going to suggest, as a working hypothesis, that the explanation proposed by David Brooks in the column to which Rick helpfully links is as plausible as the spiteful meanie hypothesis.  I say this partly pursuant to an often announced wish to proceed upon charitable interpretations for as long as that's reasonably possible.  But I say it also in part on the basis of experience.  

It is alas very easy, when concerned with big 'macro' policy questions and immersed in milieus of the sort Brooks describes (milieus of a sort I've been immersed in of late), to become a bit numbed to the remarkable and often more qualitative than quantitative differences that small programs can make in discrete local areas. It's a bit like the way memory fades in respect of how homey and lovely one's home (or one's church) is, when one's been away for some weeks.  Or even like wondering 'why equity?' when law seems to speak to a matter already.

This danger is all the more pronounced, I fear, in a sprawling and pluralist polity such as that we all constitute.  For there are understandable pressures, in legislating and regulating in such a polity, to think in neutral, 'one size fits all' terms.  Somehow we must figure out means of maintaining this necessary neutrality without thereby losing our color and flavor - our selves and our souls.  The President and his administration doubtless experience just as much difficulty, just as much occasional exhaustion, and just as much consequent temptation sometimes to resort to the over-simple and over-general in seeking that golden mean as do we.  (And as, I should think, does Justice Scalia.)   

Why is it worth attending to this distinction, then - that between the 'he's a meanie' explanation and the 'hes's forgetful' one?  I think there are at least three related reasons.  

One is that it seems to me simply better to err on the side of overestimation than on the side of underestimation of those with whom we disagree.  For it seems to me that the injustice of getting it wrong is somehow more profound in the latter case than in the former.  

Another is that our estimations of others often - not always, but often - become self-fulfilling. People seem often to become what we take them to be, at least at the margin.  

And finally another is that the fellow whose decision we wish to see changed is apt to be more receptive to our urgings if we address him as our brother and urge the importance of the change, rather than addressing him as a spiteful meanie bent upon injustice. (Which approach would you be more apt to respond thoughtfully to?)

I hasten to add that I recognize that there are limits to this proposed policy.  Some people ultimately confirm our most frightful fears, and it likely does more harm than good to pretend otherwise in at least some such cases.  It just doesn't seem to me that we're at that point here.

 

Posted by Robert Hockett on February 15, 2012 at 10:13 AM | Permalink

TrackBack

TrackBack URL for this entry:
http://www.typepad.com/services/trackback/6a00d834515a9a69e20163016f0530970d

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Merits and Motives: