Moral Responsibility and George W. Bush's Administration

One of the most interesting conversations I had at Jackson Hole was with someone who says that I am too hard on the Bush administration: that there are a number of issue areas where the Bush administration is on the side of the angels, that it is not the case that they are totally cynical and simply unconcerned with the public interest, and that they should not be subject to severe moral condemnation.

Perhaps, he said, the flaws in policy should be taken to be the result of bad implementation of decisions that were made with a good heart, or at least with a Republican understanding of what a "good heart" is.

For some issues on which the Bush administration is on the side of the angels, consider:

  1. Reform of GSEs like Fannie Mae.
  2. Reform of corporate pension accounting.
  3. CAFTA--although the giveaways in terms of restrictions on imports from China needed to get CAFTA passed may well make CAFTA a net loser.
  4. The Bush administration did not release oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve in the run-up to the 2004 election (and the Clinton administration did release oil from the SPR in election season).
  5. The Bush administration has been a roadblock in the way of airline bailouts--with the Transportation representative voting "yes" to every bailout, and the Treasury representative voting "no," the deciding vote on the airline loan committee is the Federal Reserve's Ned Gramlich.

But these are small potatoes compared to the other side--Bush administration actions that cannot be read as motivated by anything other than a deeply cynical lack of concern about the public interest or an awesome degree of incompetence. These include:

  1. The steel tariff.
  2. The lack of concern for the Doha round.
  3. The 2005 highway bill.
  4. 2004's corporate tax bill.
  5. 2003's Medicare drug benefit.
  6. The stupendous botch that is Bush administration fiscal policy.
  7. The stupendous botch that is Bush administration foreign policy.

I find this line of argument unconvincing. There is a level of bad implementation that amounts to criminal negligence, and the Bush administration is far past that level--as we have seen in the past week.

Moreover, the fact that there are some--mostly minor--issues on which the Bush administration is on the side of the angels does not lead me to think better of them:

Sokrates: What do we think of those who choose bad actions because they do not know the Good?

Glaukon: Why, Sokrates, we pity them--and we try to teach them.

Sokrates: And what do we think of those who have demonstrated that they know the Good, but who turn away from it and choose Evil instead? We cannot teach them, can we?