29 September 2011

The GOP is Right

Pedantic little language post today for y'all.

Let's think about two words: rational and reasonable.

Do they mean the same thing? I'm not speaking mathematically here, since as far as I know there is no such thing as a "reasonable" number (ha! see what I did there?).

So they are not in all circumstances identical. In their common usages, though, they tend often to be used as synonyms - or, at least, as terms which are logically linked. Not the same thing, but, confusingly (deliberately so?) deployed, they become allied in the common imagination.

1. To act unreasonably, one is encouraged to think, is to act irrationally.

As irrational acts have been conflated with irrational identities (a person who acts irrationally is regarded as an irrational person), we see a further development of this first idea.

2. To act unreasonably, one is encouraged to think, is to be irrational - that is, to be defined by one's irrationality.

But "irrational" is not a morally neutral term. Irrationality is the defining characteristic of mental illness (as, at least, it is popularly defined, which is the arena with which we are concerned here), which is conflated (again, in the popular imagination) with an active danger to society, either (though to create the following distinction is problematic) of morals or of health.

3. To act unreasonably, one is encouraged to think, is to be defined by being morally wrong and a danger to society.

Put more simply:

3. To act unreasonably is to be a bad person.

and, tied to that:

3a. Unreasonableness is morally wrong.

Fun, right?

Here's the thing, though: if we return to our very first proposition - that, in the common view, reasonableness and rationality are linked - we can say:

This should not be the case.

Linking "reasonable" and "rational" - as well as "unreasonable" and "irrational" - leads us in all sorts of morally problematic directions and, almost more importantly, puts us at a functional disadvantage against anyone who does not create such a link (or operate under the assumption that such a link exists).

Put another way: If you behave reasonably, it is rational for your competitor to behave unreasonably.

This fact can be easily illustrated with a number of scenarios. The most obvious might be the classic Prisoner's Dilemma. The "reasonable" thing to do is to keep silent, right? Each serve a sentence, but a relatively light one, and the total sentence time is diminished. If, however, one prisoner is reasonable, the other knows it, and the other is concerned with his own self-interest (i.e. behaving like a good Smithian capitalist), then it is entirely rational to behave unreasonably and fuck the first prisoner over.

If you are acting (putting concerns about the legitimacy of the US republic aside for the moment) on the behalf of your constituents, then this becomes not just a practical but a moral problem: by acting "reasonably" when faced with unreasonable opponents, you are fucking over not just yourself but also the people with whose best interests you have been entrusted. In other words:

For a representative to continue acting reasonably when faced with unreasonable opponents is not just irrational but morally wrong.

When a governmental system is predicated on the ability of representatives to act reasonably together in order to Get Things Done and avoid going off the rails, this is a problematic formulation. Why? Returning to the prisoner's dilemma: if you assume the other player is acting rationally but not reasonably (i.e. fucking you over), then the only rational move is to fuck him over right back in an attempt to lessen the damage to yourself. Expanding this back to politics:

If every representative acts rationally (that is to say, unreasonably) in a system of entrenched two-party opposition, every constituent gets fucked over, but less than they would if their representatives were attempting to act reasonably in the face of an unreasonable opposition.

From this perspective, then, the GOP is actually doing a far better job of representing their constituents than is the Democratic party. By acting unreasonably - by focusing all of their efforts on sabotaging their opposition - they are acting quite rationally, especially since Democrats are operating under the impression that rationality and reasonableness are the same thing.

If we suppose that the primary good for an elected official is to represent his or her constituents, then the Republican members of congress right now are acting in a way that is far more morally praiseworthy than their Democratic opponents.


1 comment:

Owen Barron said...

Nice post! I agree that acting reasonably when confronted with an unreasonable opponent is potentially immoral; I disagree that the GOP, by acting unreasonably when dealing with reasonable opponents, are not *even worse* in a moral sense.

Here's the way I see the morality of this. I'll accept the Prisoner's Dilemma as a valid starting point, but remember that politics is an iterative Prisoner's Dilemma. There's always another bill to play hardball on, another judge to filibuster...always more politics to be had. So you can establish the "reasonableness" of actors in advance--they might not always be exactly that reasonable, but your knowledge is greater than zero.

1. Your ideal goal is to be reasonable if you can rationally accomplish it. If you have a reasonable opponent--say, Barack Obama in the debt-ceiling debate, who's willing to give you a good percentage of what you want in exchange for mild concessions on revenues--it is moral to act reasonably. If you can't negotiate in good faith and reach compromises with opponents who do demonstrate good faith, isn't that the very definition of acting unreasonably? Moreover, acting reasonably here is rational--it serves your best interests in the long run to get 60% of what you want now AND later, rather than getting 90% of what you want now and just 10% later. This is predicated on the iteration of the game--I'm not a game theorist, but I think I've read that the "optimal" game here is some sort of mixed strategy. ALWAYS fucking over your opponent is a bad strategy in the long run.

2. If you cannot be assured of a reasonable opponent, than by all means it's both rational and moral to act "unreasonably." This is your point--although I would add that even then it is worth demonstrating your reasonableness occasionally in a "losing battle." To go back to our debt ceiling example, Barack Obama "won the center" in that fight by acting like an adult. He's going to have a (marginally) easier time with the media, polls, etc. in the future--not to mention re-election--because of this (and remember that the Congressional GOP has worse favorables than Obama!) Obviously he can't roll over in every battle just to built up his reasonableness--and that's a common critique by progressives--but it's a good long-term play once in a while. Witness the payroll tax debate, where the Dems stood and fought--and won. Had they been so obstinate earlier, they might not have had the political cover. Politics is give and take.

3. Crucially, I don't think the two "moral" failings--acting unreasonably with a reasonable opponent, acting reasonably with an unreasonable opponent--have moral parity. I think the first is much worse. Acting unreasonably with a reasonable opponent--"being a dick," for short--can only result in an arms race, a descent to the gutter. That has negative consequences for everyone. Letting yourself get fucked over is bad, and since you've got people counting on you, it's wrong--but not as wrong as fucking over someone in the first place.

I'll use a Game of Thrones analogy, because I'm a geek. {SPOILERS}

From your perspective, Ned is "wrong" and "acting immorally" because he let himself get fucked over. People died for his reasonableness, and I basically agree that that's a moral failing. But is there any case to be made that the Lannisters are "right"? Hardly. I would not want to inhabit that moral universe.