Is it unethical to be wrong about public policy?

Rep. John Fleming (R-LA) called Obamacare "the most dangerous piece of legislation ever passed in Congress."

John Fleming (R-LA) called Obamacare “the most dangerous piece of legislation ever passed in Congress.”

Obvi, the most dangerous piece of legislation Congress ever passed was the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which encouraged armed posses to cross the Mason-Dixon line and abduct black people. You know who agrees with me? Rep. Bill O’Brien (R-NH)—that’s why he put Obamacare and the Fugitive Slave Act in a tie. He seems to have been wrong, along with a great many pundits, commentators, chimerical celebrity/politician hybrids—you name it. Lots of people were vociferously wrong about Obamacare, as Krug Man points out in the New York Times. Shouldn’t they have to admit their mistakes? Bring them to Krug Man, so they may be cleansed. All hail Krug Man!

I actually really like Paul Krugman, even if he is kind of prim.1 And he’s got a point. It used to be okay to make dire predictions about Obamacare because no one knew what it would do. Then it was okay to mislead people about how it would work because it was going to work bad. The nobody knew how it was working, so say whatever, and then it worked good so let’s move on.

Lots of politicians and professional prognosticators told us this good policy would in fact be a historic disaster. Many made it the central focus of their work for like five years. And they blew it. Should they not at least have to admit that they were wrong?

Krug Man seems to imply there is an ethical component to the act of making predictions about public policy. That stuff affects people. You can hurt people by being wrong about it. Note that he does not suggest opponents of Obamacare were lying, exactly—merely that they are a kind of policy “truthers,” whose commitment to an idea is stronger than facts.

Our public life should probably discourage that kind of wrongness. If you A) selectively interpret and disseminate information to support an idea you are certain about that is B) wrong, and you C) make your living advising people about how to vote, you should probably suffer some kind of consequence. You should at least admit your mistake. Otherwise, what incentive do you have to be right?

What we are talking about here is an ethics of discourse, and that is generally held to be less important than an ethics of behavior. We uphold our ethics of behavior with force. If you violate the ethical prohibition against stealing stuff, cops will knock down your door and step on your head. If you violate the ethical prohibition against talking bullshit, you will maybe get embarrassed.

This disparity in punishments stems form the juridical principle of sticks and stones, and it is right. We can’t send the cops out to arrest people for bullshitting, lest our whole society become a nightmarish debate tournament. Still, there ought to be some consequence for just sayin’ stuff in the public sphere—particularly just sayin’ stuff about how we should govern ourselves.

I submit that very few people involved in public life as it currently exists want to impose such a consequence. Most of them have a vested interest in discouraging it. Politicians and pundits want to be able to make the most outlandish claims with impunity, because accountability—and, by extension, accuracy—is only valuable to their audiences. We, the people who listen to them, are the only party with a concrete interest in whether their predictions turn out to be right or wrong.

The prognosticator gets paid for his prediction at the moment he makes it. The moment when it comes true, or doesn’t, is for him the moment when he gets the bill. For us, of course, believing his advice was an investment that paid off when the massive health care law he told us to fight against turned out to be pretty good. Oh, wait—the investment didn’t pay off at all in that hypothetical. In that hypothetical, he tried to fuck us.

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