Monday, January 19, 2009

"Rights Talk" and the Common Good

I've been reading the back and forth between Rod Dreher and Andrew Sullivan over the website, which is a mash-up between Google Maps and the publicly-available list of donors to the Proposition 8 campaign in California. The discussion is largely fruitless, and the reason why is sadly indicative of a lot of our political debates.

Daniel Larison is on the right track when he says this:
One of the dangers in wrapping up your arguments in claims of “rights” is that it tends to encourage self-righteousness and a blindness to the flaws on your side of the debate. When you believe that the other side is not merely opposed to your position and the law or policy you would like to see enacted, but is dedicated to denying you your “rights,” well, it becomes much easier to justify all kinds of things.
The debate here seems to be a back and forth version of what the Harvard Law professor and U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See aptly refers to as "rights talk." Rights talk makes productive political discourse impossible by framing the claims of both sides in terms of basic rights, even when the rights claimed are incommensurable with each other. Because no one is ever going to compromise on their "rights," debate reaches an impasse.

In the case at hand, both Dreher and Sullivan can make rights claims that sound reasonable enough in isolation. Dreher claims a right to privacy on the part of political contributors. Sullivan claims a right to know who is financing political campaigns. Of course, these two alleged rights directly conflict with each other as formulated by both sides.

There is no way to resolve this tension without an appeal to a higher good, which I would argue should be the common good of society. But the problem with framing things in terms of rights is that the people doing the framing already think that they are defending the highest good. Thus, the proliferation of claimed "rights" inhibits political discourse.

In any event, my views are closer to Dreher's. Sullivan's claims that Eightmaps will facilitate "engagement" between the two sides seem disingenuous. Are there some version of LGBT Jehovah's Witnesses that are going to knock on doors to preach the No on 8 gospel? Dreher's concerns that the maps are more likely to be used as a form of intimidation than a means of facilitating dialogue seem justified given the high level of emotion on both sides. That said, Sullivan's concerns about deserve to be taken seriously.

I would agree with the proposition that as a general rule, political contributions should be publicly-available information. The bit in italics is a key distinction, though. The case for full disclosure rests on the notion that contributions could be a source of corruption, and that shining a light on corruption tends to lessen its impact. Knowing who our politicians are getting money from allows us to evaluate whether or not the money affects their public decision-making. In the case of a ballot referendum, though, it is unclear who is being corrupted, so the case for full-disclosure is weakened. Hence, the claims of privacy become stronger. In addition, the Google Maps mash-up technology takes us a step beyond going to the Bureau of Elections office and flipping through a book to see if certain influential names are on a list of contributors. The potential chilling effect on ordinary citizens making relatively minor contributions to an initiative that they support is much greater. The problem with a "rights talk" mode of thinking is that such distinctions are meaningless. Framing a discussion in terms of basic rights prevents us from making policy decisions that are contingent upon the circumstances of the case. It thus becomes nearly impossible to pursue a policy that allows for the greatest good for the greatest number of people.