Sunday, May 01, 2011

Democratic Legitimacy And Policy Choices

On a link I put on Facebook to one of my recent blog posts on the Mr. Y article, I lamented the lack of attention it was receiving. One commenter said that it was, indeed, receiving attention, but only within the bureaucracy, which is where such attention belongs.


Doing some quick checking on the historical background to NSC 68 yesterday, I was flipping through the relevant passages in Dean Acheson's memoirs, Present at the Creation. I was struck by the following passage on p. 377:
The need to tell the country how we saw the situation created by the Soviet Union and the necessary response to it came soon after the President's announcement of his hydrogen bomb decision.
Even as a group met within the White House to hammer out the outlines of a policy that would remain secret until 1974, there was a sense that it still required democratic legitimacy. Acheson not only writes of the split within the Democratic Party at the time, between liberals who continued to insist that a negotiated settlement of differences and tensions between the US and Stalin's USSR was possible and those, including Acheson, who saw the Soviets as a threat to be managed and contained (George Kennan was among those on the committee that drew up NSC 68).

In his Voltaire's Bastards, John Ralston Saul levels a stinging critique at what has become a most troubling trend in our public life - reliance on expertise. From p. 477:
[The] obsession with expertise is such that the discussion of public affairs on a reasonable level s now almost impossible. If an engineer who builds bridges doesn't want interference from outside his domain, and a nuclear engineer feels the same about his responsibilities, then neither is likely to question the other's judgment. They know precisely how questions from any nonexpert would be treated by an expert - the same way they themselves would.

Their standard procedure when faced by outside questioning is to avoid answering and instead to discourage, even to frighten off the questioner, by implying that he is uninformed, inaccuare, superficial, and invariably, oeverexcited. If the questioner has some hierarchical power, the expert may feel obliged to answer with greater caer. For example, he may release a minimum amount of information in heavey dialect and accompany it with apologies for the complexity, thus suggesting that the questioner is not competent to udnerstand anything more. . . . And even if someone does manage to penetrate the confusion of material, he will be obliged to argue against the expert in a context of such complexity that the public, to whom he is supposed to be communicating understanding, will quickly lose interest. In other words, by drawing the persisten outside into his box,, the expert will have rendered him powerless.

The contempt for the citizen which all of this self-defense through exclusivity shows is muted by the fact that the expert is himself a citizen. He or she considers it his right to treat his own area of expertise as exclusive territory. That, he believes, is what makes him as individual.
In an intellectual autobiographical sketch in the opening pages of The True and Only Heaven, the late Christopher Lasch writes the following about his growing disdain for post-WWII American liberalism as embodied by the Kennedy Administration, from p. 26:
The writings that gave shape and direction to my thinking in the early sixties . . . contained certain common themes, I now see: the pathology of domination; the growing influence of organizations (economic as well as military) that operate without regard to any rational objectives except their own self-aggrandizement; the powerlessness of individuals in the face of these gigantic agglomerations and the arrogance of those ostensibly in charge of them.
Just as my (small "r") republican sensibilities made me skip the recent royal wedding in Britain (I thought we fought a couple wars so we wouldn't have to put up with things like aristocrats and royalty), so, too, my (small "d") democratic sensibilities incline me to want as great a dissemination of vital, and correct, and comprehensible, information as possible. Turning our public lives over to "experts" is an abrogation of the most basic duty of republican citizenship - being informed and involved. The contempt of elites - bureaucratic, intellectual, and otherwise - for democracy comes in no small part from their own unfounded belief in their expertise granting them exemption from criticism.

Part of my own frustration with the Bush Administration's conduct in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq was the contempt in which it held the public. Not only were a multitude of lies told; not only was the decision for such an act made prior to any justification for it; the entire way the Administration went about trying to influence public opinion was a farcical copy of real democracy. Unlike Acheson, who engaged not only Republican critics on his right, but Democratic critics on his left in order to create a larger consensus for a policy that would be non-partisan, the Bush folks simply tossed story after story, piling innuendo upon lie until, when former Sec. of State Colin Powell sat before the UN Security Council to lay out the American case for war, every single factual claim he made was proved to be false, some within a matter of hours.

The narrative offered by Mr. Y invites participation across a broad-range of talents. Seeing national security in a far broader sweep than simple military, or even military-diplomatic confrontation, but as the whole country pursuing both economic prosperity and stability at home and working with partners around the world in a confluence of interests to work against pending threats to the security of all, including the United States, the national strategic narrative is something more Americans should read and study, discuss and criticize. Far more important than phony budgets; far more visionary yet traditional than any recent "doctrine", be it Carter's, Reagan's, or Bush's, this is a subject that needs to be discussed.

That's why I have been and will continue to write about it. Word needs to get out. It's too important to leave to the experts.

Virtual Tin Cup

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