Monday, February 2, 2004

An Open Letter to President George W. Bush

Dear President Bush:

Let me begin by saying that while I did not vote for you in 2000, I have never been more proud to be an American than during your three years as president. I sincerely hope that you have five more years in which to lead and serve this great country. But certain aspects of your presidency trouble me. Since I am in no sense your adversary (much less your enemy), I hope that the criticisms I make herein are taken to heart rather than dismissed out of hand. My aim is to help you, not hurt you.

The first thing that troubles me about your presidency is your failure to articulate the grounds of some of your social policies. The core value of conservatism, as you know, is self-sufficiency. Each of us is responsible for providing for his or her material needs. I am not my brother's keeper. My brother is my brother's keeper. Americans are a hard-working, honest, generous people. They are more than willing to lend a hand to those in need, but they resent having their hard-earned wealth taken from them and distributed to others by governmental functionaries. Making one person work for another is slavery, which is a moral outrage. If "slavery" strikes you as too harsh a term for this, then perhaps "theft" will do.

We live in a land of opportunity. There is no reason other than laziness for anyone to be destitute. Nobody should have to work to provide for the lazy. I am not suggesting that everyone begins life with equal resources. Some people are fortunate; others are not. But misfortune is not injustice. Injustices must be rectified. Misfortunes are only to be regretted. There are countless examples of immigrants and impoverished Americans pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. It may be difficult, but it's not impossible. The greater the challenge, the more satisfying it is to meet it. The message you need to convey at every opportunity is that everyone in this country is expected to be self-sufficient. Governmental assistance must never be more than temporary, and it should always be the basis for shame.

I believe a message of self-sufficiency and personal responsibility would resonate with the American people, the overwhelming majority of whom are industrious and optimistic. It would inspire (and perhaps strike fear into the hearts of) the lazy as well as reinvigorate the productive. You should hold up to public scrutiny the success stories: immigrants who worked long hours to start a business and who managed, through hard work and sacrifice, to send their children to college; children of working-class parents who became professionals; children from broken homes who were mentored by teachers or neighbors and who made something of themselves. It takes a lot of effort to be poor in this land of opportunity. You, as the president, should do everything you can to promote self-sufficiency. It is not just the core conservative value; it is the core American value.

One of the geniuses of our society, and the main explanation of its success, is its commitment to markets. Free, open markets, both within and between nations, are the engines of prosperity. Every intervention into the market by an agent of the state undermines its efficiency and thwarts productivity. Every intervention takes food out of someone's mouth. But ordinary people are not trained in economics. The principles of supply and demand must be explained to them in terms they can understand. If I were president, I would sponsor weekly or monthly roundtables on economic issues. I would employ the best teachers in the nation for this task. You should have no trouble finding volunteers. The aim of the roundtables would be to get people to see the centrality of markets to our way of life--and their indispensability to our future prosperity.

Another troubling feature of your presidency, if I may be so bold as to point it out, is the secrecy with which it operates. I don't know why things are done so secretly. Ours is supposed to be an open government. You should be forthright not only about the grounds of your policies but about how policy decisions are made. Your secrecy antagonizes many people who would otherwise support you, and it positively enrages the opposition. You should not write this latter group off. They may never vote for you, but if you can moderate their frustration and anger, it will eliminate certain obstacles now placed in your way. Please reach out to the critics, even the unfair ones. Our society is deeply divided. One half is willing to go to the wall for you; the other half, if you believe its rhetoric, would like to see you dead. Nobody benefits from this state of affairs. Indeed, it harms all of us. I believe many Americans are desperate for civility, reasoned discourse, and moderation.

One thing I love about the law is that it is concerned with appearances and not just reality. It's not enough for a lawyer to avoid impropriety. Lawyers are expected to avoid even the appearance of impropriety. The reason is simple: Law, as an institution, requires the confidence of the people. But this rationale applies to politics as well as to law. Agents of government, especially those at the highest reaches, must avoid even the appearance of impropriety. I believe you have violated this principle by awarding noncompetitive contracts to corporations such as Halliburton. Do you know how this looks to ordinary Americans? Even those of us who support you see it as shady and unseemly. It looks as though you are rewarding your friends. I have no idea whether Halliburton would win the contract it has been granted in a fair and open competition. The point is that no competition was held, so we will never know. You must correct this. Appearances matter.

For many months now, you have taken a beating on the war in Iraq. There is no reason for this. The war was justified on many distinct grounds, from protecting Americans from a "gathering threat" to stabilizing the Middle East to punishing a mass murderer (thereby deterring other would-be tyrants) to liberating a people. History will judge you kindly for this war, as many of us already do. What's ironic is that liberals, not conservatives, used to defend humanitarian intervention. Now they appear to care only for Americans. Liberals have grown selfish and complacent. You must make the humanitarian case for war. You must show that humanitarian intervention is in keeping with, and not a deviation from, American values. It doesn't matter whether humanitarianism was your motive (or one of your motives) in going to war. Motives are not justifications. What you did and why you did it are separate questions. I'm not for a moment suggesting that you had disreputable motives in going to war. I'm saying that even if you did, it would have no bearing on whether the war was just.

As for the much-discussed weapons of mass destruction, you need to come clean about the intelligence failures that led to your belief that Iraq had them. Perhaps some will be found, but you should prepare for the eventuality that they are not. You should explain to the American people the difference between a belief being true and its being justified. These are different concepts. Just as a person can have an unjustified or unreasonable true belief, he or she can have a justified or reasonable false belief. It's pretty clear that you believed that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and that you acted on this belief. The belief may turn out to be false. But that doesn't mean you were unjustified or unreasonable in believing it. By all accounts, you had ample reason to believe that Iraq had chemical and biological weapons, if not nuclear weapons. You acted on the basis of the information you had at your disposal. That is all a rational person can be expected to do. You should ask your critics what they would have done with the information you had.

At this point things get complicated. While your reasonable belief that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction may explain and justify your decision to go to war, it does not release you from holding your underlings responsible. You're the president. Your cabinet members answer to you. Evidently, your advisers provided you with false information about Iraq's weapons capacity. You must find out why you got bad intelligence information and make immediate changes in personnel and policy to prevent it from recurring. Do not conflate the two issues. Admitting that you got false information and cleaning house as a result of it is not to admit to having unreasonable beliefs about Iraq's weapons. Nor does it in any way undermine the legitimacy of the war. These are, as I say, distinct issues. You must convey their distinctness to the American people, who are fair-minded, intelligent, and understanding. Until you do this, your critics will have their way with you. Demagogues never make distinctions, even simple ones. If you don't make the relevant distinctions, nobody will (except a few sympathetic philosophers, such as me).

As a lifelong student of American politics, including its history and philosophy, I know that it can be much more than it is. Politics is the process by which citizens work out their collective destiny. It is a noble undertaking. It is not war. It is dialogue. The aim of politics should be to persuade, not to coerce or manipulate. I know that you are an honorable man. Honorable men would rather lose by playing fairly than win through unfairness or duplicity. One thing I admire about you is that you have principles. You stand for something. This has not always been the case with our presidents. Please use your bully pulpit to articulate your principles, many of which, such as self-sufficiency, I share. Show the American people how these principles apply in their lives. Inspire them. Bring out the best in them. If you lose the 2004 presidential election, so be it. You will have lost honorably. It will be a magnificent moral victory, not only for you, but for the American people and this great nation.


Keith Burgess-Jackson

Richard Robinson on Democratic Mediocrity

One of the dominant themes in the propaganda for a candidate for the presidency of the U.S. is usually the assertion that he is no better than the average citizen, that his home and education were mediocre, that his present tastes and companions are very ordinary, that he is, in one of their favourite phrases, 'as common as an old shoe'. Democracy has a definite tendency to discourage recognition and reverence for all the better kinds of superiority, as [John Stuart] Mill himself recognizes. . . . As E. M. Forster wrote in his Two Cheers for Democracy, democracy encourages the cult of mediocrity, and fosters vulgarity by making mass approval the supreme arbiter.

(Richard Robinson, An Atheist's Values [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964], 240-1)

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