clap clap blog: we have moved

Friday, June 06, 2003
I've seen this contention come up in a few places lately, most notably Newsweek, so let's give it an explication. From Kristof's column today:

One step came in the Clinton administration, when the defense secretary gained greater control over the handling of images from spy satellites. Mr. Rumsfeld then started up his own intelligence shop in the Pentagon. The central philosophy of intelligence — that it should be sheltered from policy considerations to keep it honest — was deeply bruised.

There are certain reasons why having intelligence be more available to the cabinet and President is a good idea. For instance, we run into the problem of "plausible deniability" wherein the President's staff intentionally shields him from certain information so he can have political cover if it blows up, and this problem of imperfect information can result in bad policy.

But in the other scenario, imperfect information becomes even more of a problem, as the issue of the selling of Iraq shows: instead of inadvertently receiving bad information, the President actively solicits bad information, cherry-picking from the (apparently indigestible) mountain of data. To me, this is much more of a danger than plausible deniability. Instead of honestly making a decision based on the information he has (while at the same time recognizing some political realities), the President makes a decision and then finds the intelligence to back it up. This then becomes less policy and more fiat, and fiat is bad for a democracy.

But I think it's important to move beyond the intelligence issue into the whole of the civil service, which is always at a danger when it becomes politicized (because, among other things, this puts it at a far greater risk of losing the public trust due to an appearance of corruption, as Hannah Arendt points out). The job of the bureaucracy is to serve the citizenry, period. Now, obviously interpretations of this service differ, and there is undeniably also a responsibility for any individual agency to preserve its mandate, but I think there are points where that border between playing politics to further your ability to effectively implement policy and pursing politics at the expense of policy is crossed. As it is, for instance, when we decide to eliminate birth control from our foreign aid, or require schools to teach creationism, or give military contracts to companies our Vice President used to work for, we put some external political goal over the goal of helping foreign people develop their countries, or educating our yoot, or gaining the trust of the global community.

We also, of course, erode the public faith in government, and that, sad to say, is probably the idea. Paul Krugman gives us, in an excellent column, another choice Grover Nordquist quote, which I'm going to put in big letters and bold because it deserves it:

"I don't want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub."

Ah, the rich conservative tradition of mustache-twirling villains. Hey, Democrats--can we jump on this one, please? Christ. Ironic quote time: "If you don't like government, get out of our democracy! You damn hippie!"

Not to be overly facetious, but where would we be today if the Founding Fathers had thought this way, huh? Conquered by Canada, that's where.