Negotiation vs. Blackmail

If you read liberal editorials about the government shutdown, you're bound to run into words like "blackmail" and "extortion" and "hostage taking."  So many commentators (like Paul Krugman in today's New York Times) are saying that Boehner & Co. aren't just engaging in politics as usual by tying the budget to postponement of the mandate portion of the Affordable Care Act, they're being manipulative in a nefarious, immoral way.  But why...why are they guilty of the bad kind of negotiating that blackmailers and hostage-takers do, and not the good kind of negotiating that legislators do?

Backing up a step, what is so terrible about blackmailers and hostage-takers, and why are the Republicans at all like them?  Saul Smilansky has an interesting discussion of blackmail in his book 10 Moral Paradoxes, which I wrote about several years ago at Talking Philosophy.  He asks why blackmail-style manipulation is wrong, but a boycott or strike is not wrong, and finds a good answer elusive.  Without rereading that (I really should!) it seems like at least a reasonable starting point to say that A can't demand payment for something that B is already entitled to.  The more important the "something" to B, the more nefarious the demand.  For example, A can't demand payment from B for keeping a secret of B's extra-marital affair.  B is already entitled to privacy about his personal affairs.  A can't demand payment from B before releasing B's child from captivity, since B's child was already entitled to her liberty.  At least prior entitlement to the contested thing seems like a sufficient condition for it to be unethical for A to make demands on B.

If that's right, then it's true, and not just rhetoric, that Boehner & Co. are doing something akin to blackmail and hostage-taking, not engaging in ordinary political negotiating.  Obama and his Democratic allies are entitled to a budget that funds all the government programs that have already been democratically chosen.  It's an unethical manipulation, in the same category as blackmail or hostage-taking, to say "we'll let you have them if you capitulate to our demands."  No, Obama, the Democrats in Congress, and in fact all citizens, are entitled to an up-and-running government, consisting of all democratically anointed programs, unconditionally.

It's different when legislators are hammering out legislation.  "I'll support building your bridge if you support building my hospital" is ordinary deal-making, because nobody's yet entitled to the bridge or the hospital.  But we are entitled to a government consisting of all the programs already signed into law and approved of by all three branches of government.  And yes indeed, that does include the entire Affordable Care Act, not some fraction of it.

Sigh. I'd sure like to stop watching the Shutdown Show, because it's loathsome and disillusioning.

1 comment:

Wayne said...

What really has been irking me is that the Republicans have been trying to make themselves look like the victims, and the Dems the hostage takers....

I've never been the type to be cynical towards the government, but this whole mess which feels like its been going on for about a decade now, really makes me wish for a democratically controlled house and senate.