Friday, February 06, 2009

Why I'm against Ethics

In the capitol of Pennsylvania, people continue to talk about the "Bonusgate" scandal, which has so far resulted in charges against a dozen current and former legislators and legislative staff. While the scandal has now been around for nearly two years, none of the charged have yet gone to trial.

But, as usual, the alleged criminal activities, which are serious, have led to discussions of ethics reform, which are usually not. Instead of focusing on transparency, most reform works to limit contact between legislators and their constituents.

This also reinforces and is in line with what is wrong with much of the way we currently go about political debate. Too often, pundits, both left and right, worry about a politician's "interests" -- will he in some way profit, either directly or indirectly, by his vote. This is small minded, short sighted, and misguided. The focus should be on the actual issues themselves -- was his vote right.

I don't mean to be overly simplistic about this, but if I am a legislator and I vote correctly on an issue, the fact that I might at the same time happen to benefit from it is not all that important -- I voted in the public interest. In the same way, if I advocate in favor of a position that would actually cost me money, but my position is also adverse to the public interest, I am still wrong, and there is no virtue in the fact that I took a bad position that also harmed me individually.

One fears that we do this because we have actually forgotten how to engage in real political debate. Arguing about issues persuasively requires fact gathering and thought, which can be hard work. Questioning interests and motivations requires little more than an ad hominem attack. Because our culture of microwave punditry eschews the former and favors the latter, we are all too frequently left with a political culture that is both wrong and profiting from it.


Blogger Lanette said...

You have attacked the obvious issues of what is wrong with politics while skirting the underlying one that is perhaps the biggest of them all- the only people who would actually vote for the public interest do not actually want to be politicians.

10:17 AM  
Blogger MCO said...

Lanette, while that thought scores points among cynics, it is not accurate. Many people get into politics to do good. That some of those stay to do well is an argument for term limits, but not one for the kinds of ethics legislation and political focus that we have.

That being said, it is true that the way politics is practiced currently -- with its focus on gotcha moments and attacks based on personal and professional relationships instead of on issues -- discourages civic minded people from getting involved. We frankly get the sort of political leaders that we ask for and deserve

11:39 AM  

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