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Presidency

E.J. Dionne, George Bush and David Foster Wallace

E.J. Dionne explained yesterday why governance in a democracy is so difficult and thankless. "The hardest slogan to sell in politics," he wrote, "is: 'Things could have been a whole lot worse.'" Avoiding a "cataclysm" is likely to be "an invisible achievement."

The problem, in essence, is epistemological. Precisely because the disaster did not befall us, there will always be doubts that it was ever really heading our way or even all that dangerous. The preventive measures taken against it may have been successful and necessary, but the non-cataclysm can just as easily be used to argue that they were excessive or even hysterical.

Inevitably, many of those measures were conceived and executed hurriedly, on the basis of incomplete and ambiguous information. The adversarial nature of our politics guarantees that critics who want to will find many reasons to belabor the measures' costs and disparage their benefits. The typical reaction to the invisible achievement of avoiding a cataclysm, according to Dionne, is that many people "whose bacon was saved . . . do not want to admit how important the actions of government were." What happens instead is that "ideologues try to pretend that no serious intervention was required."

The ostensible point of Dionne's column is that George Bush, Barack Obama, and the leaders of other industrialized nations, deserve great credit "for acting swiftly when the global economy began coming apart" last year. The massive, unprecedented fiscal and monetary measures they fashioned and implemented at a time of contagious worldwide panic were decisive in preventing the world's economy from plunging into the abyss.

It's clear, however, that Dionne's framework can be employed more generally. As we approach the eighth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, it must be gratifying to George W. Bush that one of his most severe critics is now laying the groundwork for the argument that the Bush administration succeeded admirably at what became its central task. Bush served in the White House for seven years and four months after 9/11, during which there were no subsequent jihadist attacks on American soil.

The aggressive measures his administration undertook, overseas and at home, were routinely castigated by "ideologues" who, as each month passed without a second 9/11, became bolder and more disdainful in declaring Bush's policies unwarranted abominations. The implicit premise of these attacks is that no hard choices were required to prevent the next 9/11; the menu of policy options included many ways to combine a scrupulous concern for civil liberties and world opinion with the efficacious protection of civilians' lives and peace of mind.

One intellectually honest exception can be found in a few brief lines written by the late David Foster Wallace for The Atlantic in 2007. In them he asked if we should choose "to accept the fact that every few years, despite all reasonable precautions, some hundreds or thousands of us may die in the sort of ghastly terrorist attack that a democratic republic cannot 100-percent protect itself from without subverting the very principles that make it worth protecting?" Rather than hypothesize that the Patriot Act and Guantanamo were entirely unnecessary, Wallace entertains the possibility that they "really have helped make our persons and property safer" but still asks whether they are worth it: "Have we actually become so selfish and scared that we don't even want to consider whether some things trump safety?" Braver Americans will, instead, incline to the belief that "a certain baseline vulnerability to terrorism is part of the price" of keeping our society free.

There are two problems with this position. First, there is no guarantee that if terrorists are not thwarted by our government they will limit themselves to attacks that occur "every few years" rather than every few months, and kill "hundreds or thousands" but not tens or hundreds of thousands. What even those who agree with Wallace are prepared to regard as "reasonable precautions" may, under those circumstances, evince much less self-restraint.

Second, among the reasons to regret Wallace's suicide, which occurred less than a year after this argument appeared in print, is that it makes it impossible to assess the question he raised so provocatively. The cool detachment with which Wallace contemplated the murder of thousands of his compatriots can never stand outside the shadow cast by his own death. In 1949 the Supreme Court justice Robert Jackson famously argued that the refusal to "temper . . . doctrinaire logic with a little practical wisdom" would "convert the constitutional Bill of Rights into a suicide pact." Wallace leaves behind a critique of the war on terrorism that turns a metaphor into a tangible, and chilling, possibility.

Categories > Presidency

Discussions - 2 Comments

Banks are reckless and create a crisis. Politicians give them our money. Banks don't take losses. Politicians get praise. People get debt. I think its a little early to call their swift thinking in signing checks to banks an action that saved the global economy. I really don't understand how anyone could do the mental gymnastics to ever do that even if things right themselves. Good government should be like an official in football. He is doing his job if you don't notice him. 911 and the financial crisis should have never happended. We did not need warrantless wiretaps, just someone following propper protocal to scrable fighters during the hour plus time they had to react. Banks should not have been allowed to bundle mortgages and trade them as derivitives. Now the failures have more power. "Preventing" and reacting to crisis is the method of democratic tyranny.

A very good post. Albeit it is always possible that the reason things aren't a lot worse is due to the general scepticism towards accepting a things could have been worse defense.

If you agree that the United States has on the whole outperformed the rest of the world, then a whole host of suggestions for how things could hypothetically have been done better suffers grevious dammage.

Things could have been a lot worse if not for the insight of Justice Douglas.

Ultimately you could think that it reduces itself via slippery slope to a sort of best of all possible worlds defense.

The "invisible achievement" is often times seen by the wise as periods when skill prevailed over luck. Everyday I do not play the lottery and thus do not win the jackpot is clearly an invisible achievement. Yet certainly those who do play and win would consider the prospect of never having played the opposite of an invisible achievement, being in posession of a tangible tax problem. Pro and anti-Risk adverse invisible achievements, don't escape the epistemic problem, except in limited cases involving slot machines, the lottery and poker where one can know for a fact that one has made a wise or foolish judgement independent of outcome.

If you have an outcome dependent rationality, then by and large you are incapable of seeing invisible achievements, but if you are capable of seeing too many invisible achievements, then life gets really strange because the majority of people live towards the outcome dependence side of the equation.

Full outcome independence doesn't seem tenable, yet all who presume that things could have been better must point to some outcome neutral standard since the assumption that things could have been better presumes a chain of events that did not occur.

Ironically most outcome independent analysis depends upon samples and assumptions that are potentially outcome dependent, especially in extending any analogy from a game with fixed rules(causality) to a particular situation.

In addition it isn't really in the pay grade of human beings to acertain the effects of a policy in all possible worlds. Since we still don't know how many cataclysms were averted by the actions of Bush or how many others were opened up or seeded. Technically speaking a cataclysm large enough could end the world, and probably has already in possible worlds. Seen in this light the fact that Bush is compared to Hitler is a good thing. The person who ends the world won't leave behind anyone to remmember his greatness or wickedness. At least Bush is Hitler says the spirit of the decimated prior possible world.

The first invisible achievement is that the world is still visible.

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