Decent, honest and honourable – it isn’t enough.

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In recent days I’ve read on and elsewhere and heard on the airwaves about people who are decent, honest and honourable and for this set of reasons should be public representatives or hold high office.

One of the most impressive moments of the 2008 for me wasn’t any part of the razzamatazz but I guess surprisingly a contribution from Sen. Joe Biden in the Vice Presidential debate with Gov. Sarah Palin. Yeah, I’m that much of an anorak I watched it and even paid attention to what was said.

It’s about 2 minutes 45 seconds  into this clip of the later stages of the debate* in which the nominees were asked about bi-partisan ship. It highlighted for me a problem with modern politics in general and with an interesting Irish quirk to it. The problem is that too often people on the left and the right tend to question the motivation of their opponents. To listen to members of the left you’d swear that those on the right were oppose to people having good paying jobs and good schools and access to decent health care. And you’d swear blind after listening to some of the right that those on the left were planning to lock us all up for thinking a thought that diverged from the acceptable norm or buying for extra lessons for our kids after school.

The real focus in political shouldn’t be arguments over the motives we imagine for ourselves that others must have but their judgement and the substance of their argument that they make for the policy position they are supporting. It’s part of the key difference between those who are politics for personal ambition and advancement and those of us who want to see changes in matters of policy and substance.

The Irish quirk is that we have become so used to the widespread myth that all politicians are inherently dishonest, indecent and dishonourable that the mere fact someone comes forward who it is suggested is decent, honest and honourable even if they are from the same party as the incumbent that this is is a sufficient reason to vote for them. To give them a go this time. It’s not!

Instead, those traits and others like them should be a necessary** condition but not a sufficient one for voting for someone. We should be able as adults to presume unless it is shown otherwise that all those who put themselves forward for election are decent, honest and honourable. Those who crow loudest about being decent, honest and honourable are implying that all others in the field aren’t. And the same goes for the I’m local, I’m ordinary, I’m just one of you, schtick we often hear from candidates.

I don’t think Brian Cowen or Brian Lenihan or the rest of the members of the government are somehow inherently dishonest, indecent or dishonourable. I do think they is balls out wrong with the approach they’ve adopted with dealing with the various problems we’ve been faced with and they were plain wrong in how they dealt with the economy prior to the crisis which in turn made a bad situation into an awful one. Like kids that played with matches and burned and badly damaged the family home, it’s not that they did it out of shear badness but rather out of lack of cop-on.

*The full text is below but it reads much more dryly than it come across on tv at the time.

Sen. Biden “I have been able to work across the aisle on some of the most controversial issues and change my party’s mind, as well as Republicans’, because I learned a lesson from Mike Mansfield.

Mike Mansfield, a former leader of the Senate, said to me one day — he — I made a criticism of Jesse Helms. He said, “What would you do if I told you Jesse Helms and Dot Helms had adopted a child who had braces and was in real need?” I said, “I’d feel like a jerk.”

He said, “Joe, understand one thing. Everyone’s sent here for a reason, because there’s something in them that their folks like. Don’t question their motive.”

I have never since that moment in my first year questioned the motive of another member of the Congress or Senate with whom I’ve disagreed. I’ve questioned their judgment.

I think that’s why I have the respect I have and have been able to work as well as I’ve been able to have worked in the United States Senate. That’s the fundamental change Barack Obama and I will be bring to this party, not questioning other people’s motives.”

** I’m channelling my inner engineer with recourse to a standard maths phrase of a condition “being necessary but not sufficient”. In other words, it’s presence doesn’t prove a thing but it’s absence does disprove something.

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5 Responses to Decent, honest and honourable – it isn’t enough.

  1. Kevin Ryan says:

    Granted, it’s usually poor form to question the motives rather the judgement of one’s opponent.

    But let’s not pretend the Irish government’s big banking decisions were driven by some set ideology that we can read about in comparative politics textbooks.

    It appears to have been a chaotic mish-mash of poor judgement (genuinely underestimating – by a massive amount – the likely bad loans; diagnosing a liquidity crisis; being spun by the banks; rubbish advisors) and very questionable motives.

    The government (read: Lenihan) succeeded in marshalling Official Ireland and the Independent newspapers (along with David McWilliams!) to frantically support the guarantee, and Fine Gael went along with the vote in the Dáil.

    It follows that Fine Gael can’t now energetically question the poor judgement, since they shared in it or at least endorsed its actionable conclusion. So they now question the motive instead, which is fair enough but not the highest form of debate, especially since they know they won’t get answers.

    Arguably, Labour is worse, since it is more free to focus on the appalling decision-making, but sexes it up with all the ‘economic treason’ rhetoric. If they want to back up their talk, Labour should promise a Tribunal of Inquiry.

    Getting back to US politics, it used to be the case that the liberal left questioned the humanity and decency of their opponents, while the republican right thought of them as soft and naive. Unfortunately, American politics has drifted rightwards, with significant parts questioning the legitimacy of much federal government, while a leading light of the left responds by seizing the chance to proclaim the right as one step away from seditious violence:

    I’m somewhere in the middle with Obama and Biden, hoping for a better tone and standard of debate but also realising that in Ireland, genteel insider corruption has to be called out and challenged or it will continue.

  2. Daniel,

    Very much agree with your main point, which is that majority of politicians act in good faith. Another angle is instead of cynicism about what politicians do, which is based on view that all act for selfish reasons, we should be skeptical about what they do. We need healthy skeptism about politics more than ever, but what is increasing is cynicism.

  3. steve white says:

    they may not start that way but the do all become inherently dishonest, indecent or dishonourable, and I don’t separate the person from their politics, they’re actions are quite deliberate they are not unaware of their acts misjudgement.

  4. dsullivan says:

    Kevin, I would note that FG say that their decision to support the guarantee is that it was a measure to solve a problem of liquidity not solvency and that since it has come to light that someone (probably the banks) wasn’t honest about the facts that the decision was flawed because it was based flawed information not flawed reasoning. I’m not saying we can never question someone’s honesty but rather that it should be avoided as a method of first recourse.

    Steve, I simply don’t agree that everyone (every last one) ends up inherently dishonest, indecent or dishonourable. I think more of them end up that way than started like that but that’s not the same thing at all.

  5. dsullivan says:

    Joanna, I’m all in favour of good solid scientific scepticism over cynicism. But like good science, scepticism requires work while cynicism is easily enjoyed with minimal effort.

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