Monday, July 17, 2006

AMERICAblog and representative government.

John in DC over at AMERICAblog manages to go off the deep end, trying to hold the Lebanese responsible for their government's actions. Here's what he says:
Peolpe [sic] like to talk, especially, I've found, in Europe and the Middle East, about how they hate the US government but like the American people. They say you can't hold a people responsible for what its government does. That's always struck me as odd, since we live in a democracy where the people are the government, and in the case of Bush, 50% or more of the American people, up until recently, supported the man's folly.

When the people support the government, as in this case the Shia in Lebanon likely don't want the government clamping down on Hezbollah and its missile attacks on Israel, at what point are the people responsible for the actions of their own government, and at what point should they be held responsible for those actions?

Meaning, if Hezbollah missiles are killing Israelis, and Hezbollah's actions are supported by Lebanon's Shia population, doesn't Israel have the right to retaliate against the Shia in Lebanon? At the very least against their utilities and their roads? Putting aside the wisdom geo-politically of such action, morally isn't it any country's right to strike back?

Or, if the you think that the Shia in Lebanon don't share responsibility, then do you also believe that Americans who supported Bush, and who voted for him twice, and who supported the war in Iraq don't share any of the blame for the mayhem Bush has unleashed over the past six years?
John's problem is he's running together several distinct loci of responsibility (to coin a phrase). Here's one: when an individual in a democracy freely votes for a member of a party, then they are expressing their (possibly conditional) support for (some of) the policies of that person or party. (The parenthetical qualifications matter.) Here's another: when an individual publicly expresses support for a particular policy, then that individual bears (some) responsibility for the policy and its results. Call these Locus 1 (L1) and Locus 2 (L2), respectively.

L1 needs to be subdivided, to express the qualifiers: weak L1 (WL1) holds an individual responsible if they support the policies of the person or party; strong L1 (SL1) holds an individual responsible if they conditionally support some of the policies of the person or party. To keep the discussion simple, I'm not going to argue against John's odd assumption that voters who didn't vote for the ruling party are somehow responsible for the ruling party's actions; I'm also not going to argue against his equally odd assumption that voters are somehow responsible for the actions of a non-state actor like Hezbollah.

John's argument, then, goes like this:
  1. In a democracy, WL1 holds.
  2. Therefore, since some Lebanese have L2 responsibility, all Lebanese have SL1 responsibility.
In other words, it's a string of non sequiturs.

Here's why the distinctions aren't without difference. WL1 is held by the voter who looks amongst the viable candidates, and doesn't find any that really suit his preferences and values. He considers himself to be obligated to participate in the democratic process, so he votes for someone who is, at best, a rough fit in certain respects.

SL1, on the other hand, is held by the voter who supports a candidate fully and completely (perhaps even is a member of the party), and always votes for someone who shares all his values.

Finally, L2 is held by the individual who vocally supports a particular policy -- and need never have voted at all.

So, it's clear that the distinctions I'm drawing do map on to very different process of decision-making, and thus map on to genuine differences in responsibility. And that is the problem with the Israeli bombers: they take people who may have WL1 or SL1 responsibility for the actions of Hezbollah and assume that they all have L2 responsibility. If they did have L2 responsibility, then Israel's actions would be justified, so it's not surprising that this conclusion is needed by the Israeli government. What is surprising is the assumption that all voters are L2 responsible for all the decisions that a government makes.

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