Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Technocrats or Moderates?

Ezra’s having an argument over whether to endorse Miers, who seems to not be a liberal nightmare. And from a policy perspective, I totally dig that. She doesn’t continue the Scalia tradition that scares many liberals. She does however continue the Michael Brown tradition of being an unqualified crony rather than experienced and decisive. Which I rambled “I’d rather a brilliant conservative than a mediocre crony.”

I think that’s a statement, especially when coming to the Supreme Court, that many people would disagree with (for my conservative readers, replace conservative with “brilliant liberal” and imagine I’m talking about Pres. Clinton). And yet, there are clearly positions that matter a great deal and we want technocratic competence before ideology. What are they?

So I see three options when discussing appointments by the other team:
a) brilliance is always more important than policy-moderation.
b) Policy-moderation is always more important than brilliance
c) It depends on the position.

For C, I’m kinda curious what people think what positions we should value competence or moderation more? And do you think our political culture can distinguish between the two, and find a need for moderate cronies on the Supreme Court while still putting brilliant biased technocrats in agency positions?


At 3:42 PM, Anonymous little_e- said...

Two things: first, I don't see her as a moderate, and second, I don't see her as inexperienced. I agree that she's probably not brilliant, but she at some point must have been at least reasonably intelligent, because she's done pretty damn well for herself given the odds she's faced. So I don't think the dichotomy of brilliant verses moderate really works here. There are many brilliant people who clearly would not make good gov't officials, and many moderates who clearly would not make good gov't officials. In the end, though, i'd prefer an intelligent moderate to either end of the spectrum...

At 10:05 PM, Blogger Rousseau said...

Yeah, well some would rather a brilliant liberal than even that. However the scenario presented in the past months is "brilliant conservative" of John Roberts or "mediocre crony" of Michael Brown / Harriet Miers. What to choose.

At 9:53 PM, Blogger Charles Johnson (Rad Geek) said...

"So I see three options when discussing appointments by the other team:
a) brilliance is always more important than policy-moderation.
b) Policy-moderation is always more important than brilliance
c) It depends on the position."

Can I freely substitute "correct positions on questions of policy" for "policy-moderation," if I don't think that the correct positions are usually "moderate" ones? If not, then I have to think that all of (a)-(c) seem to me to miss the point; after all, why should anyone care about moderation for moderation's sake, and if there is no reason to care about it, then why should we worry about what sort of trade-offs to make between it and legal brilliance? If, on the other hand, I can substitute, then I'll bite: the answer seems obviously to be either B or C. I'm inclined to think C, but for the moment I don't intend to try to settle the issue between the universal (B) and the existential (C) claims.

"For C, I'm kinda curious what people think what positions we should value competence or moderation more?"

Here's a couple of plausible candidates that have, in the past, come before the Court, and where clever men did a lot of harm through some audacious legal reasoning:

1. Slavery (cf. Dred Scott v. Sanford)
2. Genocide and ethnic cleansing (cf. Cherokee Nation v. Georgia et al.)

If you believe that abortion is murder or some other form of gross violation of human rights, you should probably add abortion and Roe v. Wade to the list. I don't, so I won't; but since I do regard banning abortion as a form of slavery, I would put any hypothetical reversal of Roe v. Wade, no matter how brilliantly argued, under (1).

(You could probably add torture and extra-judicial killing onto the list of issues where having the right position is more important for a judge than a brilliant legal argument on the topic.)

I think there's a general principle here: human rights are more important than sharp legal argument, and there are at least some issues on which being on the wrong side of the line just has to be a defeater for being entrusted with any kind of power to enforce your legal reasoning.

In any case, from what I can gather, Miers is neither on the right side of most issues nor possessed of a brilliant legal mind, so what are we arguing about, anyway?

At 1:17 PM, Blogger Rousseau said...

So, a few things:
1) I say "moderation" because
a) this is the choice we’re faced with now (moderate vs conservative),
b) in general most of the public would prefer moderate over the President’s extremists tendencies of choice, whoever the President is,
c) of course if the choice is correct policies that you entirely agree with, that’s a rather easy decision to make – but we are rarely faced with that decision. We can either be talking about someone who agrees with us on a very specific policy (say, abortion or rendition) or someone who in general moves in our political direction relative to what we would expect (ie, liberal conservative or moderate, 90% of the time), and
d) for me, everything is about context. I want decision-makers to make decisions based on proper context, that is good for the time and place and not blindly applying rules. To some degree understanding of context goes hand in hand with moderation, and it should also go hand in hand with intelligence. But yes, for many principled people the question using "correct positions" is more interesting, and is basically the same question most of the time, so I acknowledge your substitution.

2) So clearly the Supreme Court is at one extreme end of the spectrum for where their policy beliefs are more important than their competence, and FEMA is at the other end. But do you feel SCOTUS is the only place where beliefs are more important? There are a great deal many important positions that have sway on controversial issues and ideology, but also necessitate competent management. The Women’s health representative at the FDA was in the news recently. The Fed Chairman’s role in our economy demands a very insightful mind, but also allows a great deal of expression for your ideology.

3) If I follow C, and say about 80-90% of the time I want competence to be important over moderation/correct positioning, then perhaps I should make it into a blanket rule. Saying “all appointees should be smart” as a political message for what I demand from a President is better than “90% of appointees should be smart, and there’s a select few where they should just have the correct positions”. It’s like being a pacifist: it’s easier to simply tell the world “don’t go to war” than “90% of the time war is wrong, but in very rare cases it’s ok and I’ll let you figure it out when”.

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