What’s Wrong with the World

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Between emergency and melioration

Your policy with regard to an emergency must evidently differ at least slightly, and may well differ markedly, from your policy of melioration after the emergency has passed.

It is exceedingly rare that the sort of hurried stopgaps and improvisation that men deploy to answer an emergency likewise comprise their recommendations for reform and repair once the dust settles. When NASA engineers (as depicted in the fine film Apollo 13) scrambled to assemble air scrubbers out of the extremely limited collection of available gear, thus by remarkable ingenuity saving the astronauts from certain death by asphyxiation, they never imagined that their jury-rigged design to fit cube-shaped canisters into cylindrical sockets would be emulated in later missions. The idea of that design as a permanent blueprint would have been perfectly absurd to them.

It follows that an emergency policy must be approached and analyzed differently from non-emergency ameliorative policy.

Sometimes it is simply true that to hector and denounce the fireman for clumsily and inconsistently saving a house struck by devastating fire, is to entirely miss the point about why we should have firemen.

On the other hand, sometimes it is simply true that a poor fireman, too long on the job, quite loses his mind in supposing that a perfectly fine house is threatened with fiery doom. He smashes a door, let us say, shatters some windows while shouting at phantom comrades, and proceeds to inundate some stunned and unfortunate householders just sitting down for wine and cheese.

The obligation of neighbors observing this latter event would surely entail letting everyone in authority who will listen know that, leaving aside the granted value of having firemen, this particular fireman is driven by madness into wanton and even dangerous criminality, needs to be stopped, and can no longer be a fireman.

But again, in either case, when some days later the drama of disaster or madness has passed and all that remains are the sad ruins of a house, the whole circumstance takes on a different light. Now it becomes a matter of how best to organize and deploy the capital necessary to rebuild the house. Are the householders themselves possessed of the wherewithal or the insurance to accomplish this on their own? Need they only our help as neighbors in cleaning up, a place to sleep, and a couple warm meals or a cold beer after a long day’s repair work?

Or perhaps they need more from us than that. Perhaps, recklessly, they made themselves vulnerable in financial speculation and have not the wherewithal to repair the house. Perhaps, realistically, these folks, in part by cruel fate or human folly, in part from their own want of wisdom, will need a long weekend of help from the whole neighborhood just to get the house livable again, at which point hard decisions will press upon them.

In any case, even the framework for how we decide this melioration question differs from that by which we decide the emergency. Indeed, “we” in any republican sense implies that “we” decide the emergency, if such language can even apply, by delegating executive authority to public institutions including that of a fire department; and while we occasionally do have these ameliorative questions dumped right into our laps in neighborhood and church life, usually we decide the course of melioration by deliberating together and electing representatives to deliberate together, on how we are to live a life in common.

Now, at the highest level of legitimate government (for I deny even the legitimacy to govern me of any legislation beyond the national level except that to which the national legislature binds us, thus making it our own) these decisions concerning both emergency and ameliorative powers are dependent upon statesmanship. The executive and the legislature depend immediately upon statesmanship authorized by representation, at anything beyond the town or neighborhood level: specific men must hold these offices and discharge these duties. (The judiciary role of statesmanship, at least in theory, is chiefly confined to the office of rhetoric, for its own power to bind is confined by statute and above all Constitution.)

So statesmanship we cannot get beyond. A republic no less than a principality is dependent upon the wisdom and dispatch and fortune of its statesmen. There is no way around this.

On this subject few have spoken with more discernment than Churchill:

A Statesman in contact with the moving current of events and anxious to keep the ship on an even keel and steer a steady course may lean all his weight now on one side and now on the other. His arguments in each case when contrasted can be shown to be not only very different in character, but contradictory in spirit and opposite in direction: yet his object will throughout have remained the same. His resolves, his wishes, his outlook may have been unchanged; his methods may be verbally irreconcilable. We cannot call this inconsistency. The only way a man can remain consistent amid changing circumstances is to change with them whole preserving the same dominating purpose.

Or again, more professorially, from Michael Oakeshott:

The arrangements which constitute a society capable of political activity, whether they are customs or institutions or laws or diplomatic decisions, are at once coherent and incoherent, they compose a pattern and at the same time intimate a sympathy for what does not fully appear. Political activity is the exploration of that sympathy; and consequently, relevant political reasoning will be the convincing exposure of a sympathy, present but not yet followed up, and the convincing demonstration that now is the appropriate moment for recognizing it.

Statesmanship, being a particular sort of political activity, may likewise be called the pursuit of intimations and the exposure of sympathies. The ease with which this activity presents to the ideologue a target of intense criticism is largely a function of the abstraction inherent in political ideologies. The gritty practical reality rarely compares well with the ideal. Particularly under emergency conditions, ideology’s utility diminishes dramatically; and the statesman is left with Oakeshott’s “pursuit of intimations” and Churchill’s vague but “dominating purpose,” each easily castigated by his opponents.

Between emergency and melioration there exists a vital distinction, which all those engaged in political activity, whether as no-name bloggers locked in debate, or statesmen on the world stage, must recognize.

It therefore seems eminently rational that one might approve of a statesman’s deployment of emergency powers, or at least refrain from criticism out of that deference shown to the fireman in his desperate work to stop a fire, while later growing increasingly skeptical and critical of the same statesman’s policy of melioration. And in that deference, I think, is the germ of the difference between folks like myself and (to name two of my allies) Cianfrocca and Zippy, who supported the primary emergency policy (in its original incarnation), and refrained from sharp criticism of most of the secondary emergency policies of the Fed and Treasury in the acute crisis, while growing increasingly skeptical of everything after that: between us and those on the Right who may share the latter skepticism but take a contrary view of the former approval or acquiescence, there is an observable difference of opinion.

Comments (1)

Paul, I think the reason this may have gotten no comments is that in the Churchill quote you have "whole" where you meant "while."

Okay, just kidding.

It's probably just that, in your conclusion, you state an obvious fact, sort of a truism: to say that "there is an observable difference of opinion" is to say something about which there is no difference of opinion. Nevertheless, you should have gotten a whole bunch of comments in homage to the effort that went into this. I personally didn't comment because I couldn't think of anything to say. I think before someone comments he ought to know something of what he's talking about, so when it comes to money matters, I yield to you and Zippy and my wife.

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