Friday, August 28, 2009

The Dignity of one Particular Legislator

In his 1999 book, The Dignity of Legislation, Jeremy Waldron offered a deliberately idealized picture of the process of legislation to compete with the idealized pictures of judging that one typically encounters in academic jurisprudence, and to serve as an antidote to the cynical view of legislatures as nothing but places in which log-rolling, deal-making, and the pursuit of special interest prevail. As the title suggests, Waldron aims to develop an account of legislation that explains its dignity, that is, that says why this form of lawmaking commands respect.

I am not wholly sold on Waldron's affirmative project (and I am not at all sold on his negative project, i.e., his spirited critique of judicial review), but I do think that his view serves as a useful counterpoint to the "public choice" view of legislation. To his theoretical exegesis we might add that particular, public-spirited legislators serve as counter-examples to the public-choice model. I would venture that most elected officials spend at least some of their energy pursuing the public good as they understand it. (Not all, I admit.) And some legislators are primarily interested in serving the public good.

It is, of course, natural for politicians to praise a fallen colleague, even one with whom they disagreed on matters of policy. But I regard the nearly universal esteem in which Senator Kennedy was held by the end of his long Senate career as something more: The other Senators had genuine affection for him. Now such affection might have nothing to do with public-spiritedness. A politician concerned only about holding and exercising power, or worse, about rewarding his friends and punishing his enemies, could, nonetheless, be personally popular if he were friendly, jovial, and charming at a personal level. Kennedy may well have been all of those things, but there can be little doubt that he was more. He served those many years in the Senate because he genuinely believed in the causes he championed.

None of this is to deny that there is a certain undemocratic character to the relation between the Kennedy family and political power. Noblesse oblige assumes noblesse, an uncomfortable concept given our national commitment to democracy. At the same time, however, society benefits when the well-off use their money, energy, and influence to advance the causes of the less fortunate. The charge of limousine liberalism has thus always struck me as misdirection. It directs anger at those who advance humane policies that work to their own financial disadvantage, rather than at those who can avoid the charge of hypocrisy only by pursuing their narrowly defined self-interest to the detriment of the greater good.

Posted by Mike Dorf

10 comments:

michael a. livingston said...

As a former supporter of Ted Kennedy now turned into a curmudgeon, I agree that he is to be praised for his commitment to principle and willingness to apply this in a constructive, pragmatic way. But I cannot ignore the tremendous damage that he and his family did to American liberalism, which they associated with personal libertinism and a cult of personality from which it has never fully recovered. I talk about this further today at my own (modest) blog.

Michael C. Dorf said...

Hmm. Michael, I agree with you about the effect, but not the cause. The libertinism of the Kennedy family and Bill Clinton has reflected badly on them personally (even as, in both cases, there are enormous virtues to be reckoned on the other side of the ledger). The same is true of the countless Democratic and Republican politicians involved in sex scandals lately (perhaps without the compensating virtues in some cases). I do think that these events make people (even more) cynical about politics and politicians in general. But to the extent that we're talking about liberals in particular, I think the personal failings of various Democratic politicians are much less important than the rise of the 60s counterculture, which conservatives have been campaigning against for 4 decades. George McGovern was as square and earnest as they come, but Nixon bested him in a landslide because he was associated with the anti-War, pro-civil rights movement that, by 1972, was in turn associated with sex, drugs, and rock & roll.

Paul Scott said...

At least Clinton didn't, you know, kill Lewinski.

The limousine liberal tag might apply at least a little more fairly to Kennedy given his support of the environment only so long as it didn't spoil his view from his mansion. To me the tag "limousine liberal" bespeaks the hypocrisy. I remember having a similar reaction to Al Gore in AIT where he is shown being carted around in a, well, limousine and private jet while suggesting that the way the rest of of could support the environment was by commuting by bike. One look at Al's gut will tell you how much commuting by bike he does.

To me this is the same thing as these sex scandals being overwhelmingly christian republicans.

michael a. livingston said...

I agree and disagree with Michael Dorf's comment. Yes there are cads on all sides of the political fence. But the effect is different. The principal fear of social liberalism has always been that it will undermine traditional morality and respect for women in particular. That the two leading liberal families of the last fifty years have tended to give credence to precisely this fear is surely not insignificant. It's somewhat like Bush claiming to be religious and then making statements, such as that he talks directly to God, that seem to confirm precisely the worst fears about him. It has a resonance that goes beyond the mere morality issue.

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Joe said...

I think the first comment has a point ... the immorality of many lead Republicans underlines the harm this does to the cause.

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