The Morality Of Political Hostage Taking, Cont'd

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JONATHAN CHAIT AUGUST 5, 2011

The Morality Of Political Hostage Taking, Cont'd

Eugene Volokh jumps into the debate over the morality of debt ceiling hostage-taking, defending the Republicans:

Yet those who opposed the conservative demands for spending cuts as a condition of raising the debt limit obviously didn’t just want to be left alone. They wanted the conservative legislators to cast their votes to authorize a debt limit increase. They wanted taxpayers to be on the hook for repaying an increased national debt. They wanted people’s cooperation, and were then complaining about the conditions that the people imposed for such cooperation.

In some respects, this is like a businessman who complains about “extortion” when union members threaten a legal strike (carried out through legal means). One can certainly understand the businessman’s feeling put upon: He may be threatened with financial ruin, much as he is threatened with financial ruin if an extortionist threatens to burn down his property (or if a corrupt politician threatens to shut down the business if a bribe isn’t paid).

But the businessman doesn’t just want the supposed “extortionists” to stay out of his life. He wants their cooperation: He wants them to keep working for him (or he may want their sympathizers to keep buying his products, for instance when he’s objecting to a union-organized consumer boycott). The union members are saying: If you want us to keep spending our time and effort on working for you, you need to give us enough to make us agree to work for you.

To be sure, the union members may be in a position where the businessman must accede, because he needs them to cooperate. But since they have no legal obligation to cooperate, he needs to get them to agree. And to label this threat of noncooperation in order to get something valuable in return “extortion” or “hostage-taking” isn’t just be normal rhetorical license — it would fundamentally miss the key moral distinctions.

Bad analogy. Union members who strike are hurting the parties to the transaction. Failing the debt ceiling creates little harm to members of Congress themselves, and enormous harm to innocent parties.

We have a mechanism for members of Congress to not cooperate in a higher national debt. It's to refuse to sign a budget in which outlays exceed revenue.

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posted in: jonathan chait, eugene volokh

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