Seamanship Quotation

“In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination.”
— from Michael Oakeshott's
Political Education” (1951)

Monday, September 12, 2011

Michael Ignatieff: 9/11 and faith in the state

Michael Ignatieff has returned to academia after a battering experience as leader of the Liberal Party of Canada. His exclusive essay on the consequences of 9/11 demonstrates that he’s no less an academic today—and no less a political wordsmith either.
He scorns the illusions and mistakes of a decade. His prose soars with eagles. It’s very hard, however, to figure out amongst all the game scurrying for cover below which exactly is his prey. The title offered by The Globe and Mail, “9/11 and the Age of Sovereign Failure,” is grand but fairly straightforward. His angle on what’s gone wrong, however, is anything but.
Ignatieff’s prize first sentence declares:
“One of the tasks we ask government to perform is to think the unthinkable.”
That’s possible, of course; the modern nation-state has the human resources to image anything. However, his complaint about 9/11 is brutally specific: on facing terrorist threats, Western governments (especially the US) should have been “not just hoping for the best but planning for the worst.”
Ignatieff concludes, “A sovereign failed that morning.” He seems to imagine that every morning the president and his busy court should stop dealing with the problems at hand and ask, “What conceivably could go wrong today?”
Then, he gets adult and offers a grace note for all of us:
“We have learned to live with that, to accept that there are 'black swans' – events so unthinkable that no one can prepare for them. So we accept a new vulnerability. But there is no hiding the childlike disappointment inside us all. Our idea of the sovereign included a child's expectation that it would keep us safe. We have had to grow up.”
But his child wakes. The Iraq War, Hurricane Katrina, the economic crisis of 2008, the debt-ceiling debate, the sovereign debt crisis in Europe—along with 9/11—all constitute sovereign failures and betrayals of the people’s trust:
“When you line these failures up in a row, one following the other, it is no surprise that people have lost faith in government everywhere, but especially in the United States.”
Faith, he insists, must be restored. Here, he’s a tad ambitious, combining the illusions of his resilient child and the perfectionist standards of a tenured outsider:
“Sovereigns matter. And rebuilding their legitimacy, their capacity and their competence is the political task that matters most.
“Competent doesn’t mean bigger. It may even mean smaller, nimbler, more digital, less bureaucratic and more responsive in the face of the ceaseless ingenuity of greed. But whatever form sovereign government takes in the future, it has to mean government that prepares for the worst and regulates to protect the public from greed, violence and environmental ruin.”
Ignatieff’s nimble Leviathan isn’t granted a blank check:
“If terror challenges democracy, the answer is more democracy, not less, more accountability and openness, not less.”
Ignatieff says he doesn’t care what form his state should take. So, he doesn’t try to explain how more nimble airport security and less bureaucratic-enhanced interrogation protocols will keep us safe, our faith alive and our consciences clear. He doesn’t reconcile how an all-knowing regulatory regime will allow businesses to make necessary business mistakes or how the savvy regulator will not be seduced in the process of regulating the animal spirits of others.
A Liberal critic can demand that government be on top of everything and not our master. But a liberal scholar ought to try to explain how we can be free and grant any-sized government sufficient power to keep our person, our property, and our economy perfectly safe.
Anyway, if officials and politicians were sure that what they were doing would always look "competent" the next day, nobody would need the elaborate machinery and checks and balances of Ignatieff's more perfect state.
He concludes by suggesting there are forces lurking in the US primaries in the grip of an “ideological fantasy,” imagining that America doesn’t need a competent sovereign. According to Ignatieff’s opening proposition, everything must be possible, even the idea of Rotary Republicans living in the wild making up their own rules. However, his essay and his concluding sentence are equally fantastical:
“And until they [sovereigns] stop failing us, we will not be safe, and our prosperity will not be secure.”
Faith in government goes hand in hand with too much faith generally. Before 9/11, we saw too much trust in all centers of power. American leaders in banking, in business, in defense, in intelligence, in accounting, in Congress, in the White House, and in the Federal Reserve all trusted that the others were competent and, together, that they were “masters of the universe.” Those illusions hurt millions of less proud, less powerful people.
However, the way ahead is not to try to construct a flawless state, but to get on with the grinding business of making improvements, punishing wrong-doing, and rewarding talent.

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