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Cut the Cheese

November 8, 2010

America is like the girl that keeps getting back together with that abusive moron everyone hates.

…but he’s going to be different this time, he swears!

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the American polity, regardless of your party preferences, is its almost staggering capacity for doublethink and its corresponding inability to appreciate cognitive dissonance. Considerate observers, thinkers, and participants in current affairs always point out just how much the other side fails to appreciate how their own methods undermine their own goals. The right laments how the left fails to appreciate that free trade and lessened government command over resources increases human welfare to the poorest the fastest (e.g., just giving the poor cash does a lot more to increase their welfare than something like food stamps). The left laments the right’s mistaken apprehension that their taxes were raised or that unfettered corporate interests achieve the public good. Democrats assert that “foreign corporations” are trying to influence elections. Tea Partiers believe they are dangerous government obesity but refuse to tweak Social Security or Medicare, by far the biggest threats to fiscal solvency.

However, both frequently fail to appreciate the dangers that arise when organized interests enmesh and embed themselves within government run by either side. For example, consider the recent uproar over the hypocrisy of one arm of the USDA called “Dairy Management” peddling and marketing dairy products, while as another arm of the USDA decries the increase of fat in American diets that can be largely attributed to the addition of that extra cheese.

Dairy Management, whose annual budget approaches $140 million, is largely financed by a government-mandated fee on the dairy industry. But it also receives several million dollars a year from the Agriculture Department, which appoints some of its board members, approves its marketing campaigns and major contracts and periodically reports to Congress on its work.

It is in a democratic politician’s interest to claim to represent as many segments of society as possible, but a coherent strategy of political practice often promotes one segment’s interests in contradiction to another segment. Masterful politicians minimize the perceptibility of that cognitive dissonance.

Part of this problem may be caused by a divide between the deontological (i.e., ideological) and the consequential, pragmatic approaches to good governance and political philosophy. This is why the Tea Party or hard right’s strategy of “starving the beast” doesn’t work; limiting government is well and good in theory, but if the strategy entails instigating an incompetent government (or no government, as far as many of them are concerned), the politics undermines the polity’s actual needs and values. But that doesn’t mean that the Democrats are legitimate by default, as the last elections proved; saying “I’m not a nutjob” isn’t enough.

Of course the necessity of having government is not sufficient for the legitimacy of a particular government. A particular government has to competently perform the functions of government at least to some minimal level in order to be legitimate. For an entity to claim that it is the government or doing the work of government is not sufficient; it actually has to produce.

In the dairy example, it’s perfectly consistent to push something on the polity to excess if someone within the polity produces it. It’s simple and direct representation to milk government resource for all its worth to the benefit of a single constituency. The point is that direct representation isn’t always healthy if it’s not mediated by enough directly conflicting constituencies to create a balance or some disinterested sense of right and wrong. Such moral clarity isn’t inherent to democratic structures that involve forces competing with one another and playing themselves out on the body politic. That quiet dignity is inherent in the values and mores of our civil society, and such positive values are quite often ignored by the bias for sensationalism that our gossipy selves instill in our media. But if we set aside our a priori and idealistic notions of what we have always thought good government to entail, and take a break from our posturing outrage with the consistent and predictable failures of human institutions, we can take a practical step back to see where the system we have is broken and what fixes are possible in the short to medium run. Because, whether it’s from the average intake of 33 pounds of cheese a year or not, in the long run, we’re all dead.

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