Over at his NYTimes blog, Ross Douthat is talking about the government shutdown and whether it just might be a reasonable move on the GOP’s part.
The heart of Douthat’s argument:
At bottom, this theory depends on the belief that even though voters say they don’t want the government shut down to defund Obamacare, what they’ll actually remember from this debate a year from now is that Republicans were really, really against the law and Democrats were really, really for it. And if, as many conservatives believe, the law will be even more unpopular after a year of implementation than it is today, that contrast will trump any residual irritation at G.O.P. brinksmanship, and voters will reward Republicans for their position rather than punishing them for their tactics.
This theory does find some support in recent political events. The 2010 election really did tip more toward the G.O.P. than the economic fundamentals predicted, and the role of grassroots zeal in making that election a referendum on Obamacare probably helped Republicans more than it cost them (outside of certain Senate races, that is). Democrats and liberals mock the House’s repeated anti-Obamacare votes, but – even allowing for the complexities and vagaries of public opinion — it really is one of the few major domestic policy issues where the country has been consistently on the Republican Party’s side. And depending on how things turn out with Year One of its implementation, it isn’t entirely crazy to to imagine that the country will be thinking much more about where the parties stand, and how firmly, on health care next fall than about whether the G.O.P. went a little too far over the brink in its budgetary tactics the year before.
Mr. Douthat is a full-time professional, incredibly intelligent journalist. He knows more about politics and in particular conservative politics than I could ever hope to claim, and I won’t even pretend to have his policy chops. So I’m not going to challenge these facts, though some of them do seem a little challengeable to me.
But there’s this word he uses repeatedly throughout this post, reasonable. He says that shutting down the government over this issue is good tactics, that you could at least see the line of thought where it helps them come 2014, and so that makes it a good, reasonable thing to do.
I’ll grant him that it may be useful. If Douthat’s right about Obamacare being so hated, at least among possible GOP voters, then painting your side as the people willing to make a final brave stand against a totalitarian law is probably good strategy. The thing is, I don’t think that’s all you need for an action to be rational. Maybe I’ve been thinking too much about Kant, but that’s actually one of his main points: that not all goals are equally moral, and while it may be okay to go after what tickles your fancy, what’s useful to some personal goal you may have if it doesn’t keep you from doing some genuine duty, that’s not what we’re talking about in morality.
As an example, here’s a scene from Up in the Air that I’ll be discussing with my class next week.
In this clip, Ryan (George Clooney)’s character talks about how all his actions are geared toward acquiring frequent flyer miles. So he orders whatever his expense will pay for, even if it’s much more than he needs, because he can put it on his credit card and get miles out of that. These actions make a lot of sense, they’re useful steps toward getting more miles. And there is some logic to this goal: it puts him in an elite class, he gets his name on the side of an airplane, the kind of things that most of us want. But I think Natalie (Anna Kendrick) is ultimately right in her reaction: his focus does seem more on the level of “we all need a hobby” than “wow, that’s a truly moral decision.” Even if he gets the perks and fame, I can’t help thinking that if Ryan meets his goal, it would still feel like a first-class waste of effort. I mean, really? Frequent flyer miles? If it makes him happy, if it isn’t making him act unethically, then good for him, we all need a hobby – but is this really what we would call a rational course of action?
For Kant, rationality starts by looking at the motive behind our action. It involves the kind of motive that we can see everyone following and we’d still choose to live in such a world – if there’s a contradiction, or if the world would be so awful it would be irrational to choose to live there, then we have a duty not to do that kind of thing. So looking at the current situation: would the GOP really choose to live in a world where they passed a substantial law through the normal legislative process, had it vetted by the court, and then the other party refused to let the government function if they didn’t arrange a do-over? The only way this kind of goal makes sense is if you expect the other side to not do what you’re doing.
And, at the risk of actually giving Jar-Jar Binks some pop culture creds: that smells stinkowif.
I actually have some respect for people who are so outraged by the healthcare law that they think a shutdown would be preferable. I don’t mean the folks who think it would be bad for them, but for everybody? The people who think a month without government services is better than a new entitlement (which the ACA isn’t, but moving on…) I think they’re wrong in a big way, both on the facts of the law and in how awful the consequences will be, but at least they’re fighting against something they think is dangerous and flat-out wrong. At least they have a principle. But honestly? If the point is that this will make it easier to do get elected or will situate you better for some other political fight down the road?
Do. Your. Damn. Jobs.
And in case that’s a little too subtle: