Ethics: Skepticism of politicians is important

April 4, 2014 

The accusation that a California state senator was involved in gun trafficking is the most recent and appalling in a long list of scandals. Governors, senators, representatives, mayors, and even presidents have cheated on their wives, taken drugs, lied, cheated and misbehaved.

There are good reasons to be skeptical of blundering bureaucrats and pathetic politicians.

We might think that military and security forces are better. But down the road in King City the police took cars from poor immigrants. Scandals have swept national security agencies. Secret Service agents were caught partying on the job. A sex scandal forced former Gen. David Petraeus to resign as head of the CIA. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair's sexploits were splashed across the headlines. And the airmen tending our nuclear arsenal have been caught cheating.

Decades of dysfunction and scandal include: Watergate, Iran-Contra, Monica Lewinsky, WMD in Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, Bridge-gate, IRS-gate and so on. The government even shut down last fall. Our motto "in God we trust" should continue to say, "… in government we don't."

This comes as no surprise to students of history, philosophy and religion. The world's traditions express deep skepticism toward political power. Moses battled Pharaoh. Nathan rebuked David. The blind prophet Tiresias condemned Oedipus and Creon. And Socrates was put to death for speaking truth to power.

The most important story of the Western tradition can be read as an indictment of political power. The story begins with King Herod massacring children. To escape the slaughter, the holy family flees to Egypt. Jesus is finally arrested, tortured and brutally executed under Pontius Pilate. Jesus reminds Pilate and posterity that his kingdom is not of this world.

Some have derived anti-political conclusions from this story. Christian abolitionists in New England in the early 19th Century rejected political power that permitted slavery and injustice. They declared allegiance to the brotherhood of all mankind. Some explicitly refused to support human governments, withdrawing from the mainstream and forming separatist Christian communes.

Henry David Thoreau, the American transcendentalist, was part of that milieu. He criticized slavery and unjust wars. His famous essay, "Civil Disobedience," explains that the best government is the one that governs least.

Like the ancient prophets, Thoreau aimed to live his life as a counter-friction to the machine, even breaking the law out of obedience to a higher law.

This skeptical standpoint resonates in our era of political crimes and misdemeanors. The wisdom of the ages suggests that we should not expect too much from political power and that enlightenment is to be found somewhere beyond the political fray.

Of course, this skeptical critique has its blind spots. Not everyone in the political barrel is a bad apple. And the legal system is better today than it was in the 19th century or in the time of Jesus. Slavery has been abolished. Women can vote. We no longer crucify dissidents. But it is important to note that this progress often has been the result of the difficult and dangerous work of those who speak truth to power, while remaining committed to a higher law. The prophets, abolitionists and dissidents play a crucial political role.

While anarchist utopianism is inspiring, it is important to note that the flaws that plague our politicians are shared by all of us. People are ignorant; some are evil; and most make mistakes.

Big institutions magnify these human faults. Skepticism about human nature afflicts all utopian dreams. If we can't trust the politicians, how can we trust our neighbors or even ourselves?

No utopian solution or political scheme can completely straighten the crooked timber of humanity. The Christian anarchist communes of the 19th century did not last long. States and governments also fail.

While it is difficult to imagine a future of anarchist communes united by brotherly love, it is equally difficult to imagine a successful state run by incompetent and wicked people.

It's enough to make one hope that there is another world in which stability, order and justice might reign.

But in this world, in the meantime, skepticism is in order.

There are no perfect politicians because there are no perfect people. They are us. We are them. And the work of justice is never done.

 

Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy and director of The Ethics Center at Fresno State. He invites your suggestions at fiala.andrew@gmail.com.

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