Notes on a Theory…

Thoughts on politics, law, & social science

Posts Tagged ‘reasonableness

Treat Everything Like a Trial Balloon

with 4 comments

balloon-clipart-5Trial balloons are central to American politics, yet the idea gets very little attention from political scientists.  The basic point is simple–the administration anonymously floats an idea, for example, a name for a political appointment. This can be done by a source that can’t speak on the record, or by writers who are close to administration, portraying it as the writers idea.  Once the idea is put out there, the administration waits to see the reaction.  If the name is greeted with praise, or at least indifference, the name is a safe one.  If it’s greeted with attacks, depending on their intensity and from who they come, the administration knows appointing the individual will cause trouble, and another name can be chosen since they never admitted they were even considering the person in the first place.

This makes sense, given a central problem for all actors in the political system–nobody knows exactly what everyone else in thinking, or how strongly they feel. Watching how other people react when ideas are floated provides that information.  It lets you know if your position is popular (within elite circles in Washington, which is what matters for these things) or if a particular stand would mean that you were standing alone. It’s how the boundaries of what’s reasonable and what’s off the wall are drawn. It’s how you can tell if you will be called to account for your actions and whether you’ll be able to defend them if you are.  Since organizing opposition takes time, you can be sure it either won’t happen, or at least won’t happen effectively, if people don’t begin mobilizing long before a final decision, whether that means an appointment, or a legislative vote.

What’s interesting about all this is that all these problems exist regardless of whether anyone intended to float a trial balloon.  It doesn’t matter if reporting merely reflects internal deliberations, or if the story was only the result of a single disgruntled staffer.  In the end, the reaction to the story serves the same function.

Powerful people in Washington understand all this.  They pounce on people for merely suggesting anything that threatens their interests. That’s how they keep such ideas off the agenda, so that what is actually voted on is non-threatening, making wins and losses on the merits essentially beside the point. When Social Security and Medicare were untouchable, it was because the slightest whiff of a challenge to it would bring about a massive mobilization.

Since we can’t know whether an idea being floated in intended as a trial balloon or not–since the whole point of it is to deny responsibility–and since the impact is the same regardless, the answer is clear.  Treat everything as a trial balloon. If someone tries to convince you otherwise, say when it comes to talk of undermining Medicare, they are either bad at politics or trying to keep you powerless.

Written by David Kaib

December 8, 2012 at 11:00 pm

Workplace Coercion and the Public / Private Divide

with 2 comments

If you haven’t been following it I can’t recommend enough catching up with a series of posts that began with Chris Bertram, Corey Robin and Alex Gourevitch (BRG) launching a broadside against the Bleeding Heart Libertarians (BHL) concerning coercion in the workplace. I described the larger conversation as “the best thing on the internet”.  The central point is that the workplace is an arena of considerable coercion where employees have vastly fewer rights than they do in relation to the government, or for that matter, then most people probably realize.

Libertarianism is a philosophy of individual freedom. Or so its adherents claim. But with their single-minded defense of the rights of property and contract, libertarians cannot come to grips with the systemic denial of freedom in private regimes of power, particularly the workplace. When they do try to address that unfreedom, as a group of academic libertarians calling themselves “Bleeding Heart Libertarians” have done in recent months, they wind up traveling down one of two paths: Either they give up their exclusive focus on the state and become something like garden-variety liberals or they reveal that they are not the defenders of freedom they claim to be.

I’m less interested in discussing the critique of the BHL than I am in the issue of workplace coercion and the public  / private distinction that makes it difficult to see this in the first place.

By public / private distinction, I mean a deeply ingrained cultural narrative that opposes the private sphere / the natural world / the market / voluntariness  vs. the public sphere / interference / government / coercion.  Margaret Somers argues this idea has its origins in Locke, who was seeking to create a way of restraining the monarchy by elevating a pre-political, fundamental private sphere that could not be legitimately interfered with, since the primary threat of the time was a newly empowered absolutist monarch.  Somers argues these ideas distinguish what is considered reasonable from what is not, operating not as a premise in logical arguments but rather structuring how people perceive the world in the first place.

Ultimately, this doesn’t mean that people don’t know that the workplace is coercive, it means that this experience is often not politicized–in the sense that it’s experienced as a problem about individual companies or managers.  Or from a third-party stance, it is not something that poses a problem–for example the presumption that such coercion must have some economic rationale (and the implicit notion that profit-making would thereby justify it). Something becomes politicized when we tie our own fate to others, when we see this as about ‘work’, for example. as opposed to ‘this job’.

The difficulty here is that while libertarians tend to be the loudest critics of laws and regulations, it’s by no means limited to them. Neoliberals are also skeptical of labor regulations, and treat markets as presumptively legitimate. And conservatives who are openly hostile to civil libertarianism often take such positions as well.

This is the conversation the left needs to have, and it’s one we haven’t, in part because the right has been dominating the conversation, dictating the questions to be asked, etc.  In the end, the various answers to the question posed at the outset–can bosses demand that their employees to have sex with them or be fired–have been wanting.  Just raising these questions helps makes the underlying assumptions less obscure.  My sense is that they only hold their power because we don’t typically attend to them.

It would also be helpful if we were to raise questions about terms like the private sector, intervention, or market, all of which do more to obscure than to reveal.  But that is a subject for another post.

(Corey Robin has been rounding up the various responses to the original post. The latest one is here).

Written by David Kaib

July 13, 2012 at 11:44 pm

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 4,268 other followers

%d bloggers like this: