A note on two items which have been circulating a lot in the lefty
blogsphere over the past few days.
The first is the DOD
torture memo that the Wall Street Journal floated yesterday, the
one containing the much-remarked advice that
- To protect subordinates should they be charged with
torture, the memo advised that Mr. Bush issue a "presidential
directive or other writing" that could serve as evidence, since
authority to set aside the laws is "inherent in the president."
Which is to say that if torture is used, Dubya should authorize it
explicitly, since activities he chooses to authorize are above the
law. But relax, folks -- they surely don't mean to authorize
anything; in practice, this will surely be limited to the
activities of Republicans.
The memo is also noteworthy for its invocation of the Nuremberg
"just following orders" defense (so called, as Billmon notes, because it
was rejected at Nuremberg).
But beyond the individual
howlers (though should one really look beyond an assertion that Dubya
is allowed to authorize anything?) is the general tone, described in
Phil Carter's much-quoted analysis
that Dubya's administration is less focused on doing the right thing
than on getting away with the wrong thing. How did we arrive at
standards of conduct where this is considered proper?
Another item making the
rounds is a Hannity and Colmes segment on George Soros, featuring
charming little tidbits like this:
- BLANKLEY: [Soros] said that he has no moral responsibility
for the consequences of his financial actions. He is a self-admitted
atheist. He was a Jew who figured out a way to survive the holocaust.
BLANKLEY: When a man with this kind -- when a man is with this kind
of money, and he's spending it on trying to influence the American
public in an election -- trying to buy the election; he is not going
to -- we have a right to know what kind of an unscrupulous man he is.
Now, allusions to anti-Semitic tropes are all over this thing, and
I don't mean to discount them. (Exactly how is it
supposed to be a sign of his "unscrupulous" nature that he "figured
out a way to survive the holocaust"? And that's far from the
worst that Soros's critics have dished out lately.) But lost in that is that one of
Tony Blankley's charges is in fact true: Soros's book, "Open Society"
does make the claim, and defend it at length, that neither Soros nor
any other participant in financial markets is morally accountable for
I insist that there is no point in applying moral judgments to
decisions that have no outcome -- and that is the case
regarding the social effects of individual investment decisions.
Those decisions affect only the profits of the individual, not the
prices prevailing in the market. That is what I mean when I say that
markets are amoral: The anonymous participant need not be concerned
with the social consequences of her decisions. By contrast, political
actions, such as voting or lobbying or even arguing, do have social
I arrived at this precept when I was an anonymous market
participant. That covers my career in finance up to and including the
devalutaion of sterling in 1992. I blew my cover when I allowed
myself to be identified as "the man who broke the Bank of England."
Since then, ... I have become a public person whose utterances
can influence the outcome. I can no longer escape having to
make moral judgments. This has made it practically impossible for me
to function as a market participant.
This is an odd argument -- there are many markets where individual
participants hold positions big enough to influence prices without
that fact, or their actions, attracting public notice. (Think Cargill
in grain, for example). And Soros does go on to claim that moral
accountability is on society at large for setting up the market
mechanism in the first place, and goes on to inveigh against
arguments for the primacy of markets as a social decision making
mechanism, for exactly that reason:
- Financial markets are amoral, and that is why they
are so effective in aggregating the views of the participants.
Exactly because of that quality, they cannot be left in charge of
deciding the future.
But the bottom line is still that Soros does claim that his financial
transactions -- so long as they follow market rules -- are subject to no
moral standards beyond that.
But even so, it's
still very strange for Blankley to cite it in a bill of particulars against
Soros -- because Soros's views on the point are not really
exceptional. It's a truism in financial circles these days that the
sole responsibility of the management of not just, say, a hedge fund,
but of any corporation, is fiduciary duty to the shareholders
-- conceived quite narrowly as maximizing their financial return. All
other considerations are supposed to be set aside. What
makes Soros exceptional is not his willingness to live by this, but
that he's bothered enough to try to rationalize it.
The upshot of this is that we, as a society, have a stratum of
powerful decision makers who believe it is not just their right, but
their duty, to set moral considerations aside in their professional
activities. At best they're supposed to live within the bounds of the
law; pushing those bounds -- relocating corporate HQs to Bermuda, for
instance, to avoid paying their fair share of taxes -- is seen as innovative
and praiseworthy, at least in some circles. Should it be such a
surprise that, confronted with legal barriers of a slightly different
sort, the administration of an "MBA President" acts the same way?
More: Here's a New York Times Magazine piece by Michael Lewis on the strained quality of modern business ethics in America:
When you are honest only because honesty pays, says Birkenstock's C.E.O., you risk forgetting the meaning of honesty. When you are socially responsible only because social responsibility pays, you lose any real sense of what responsibility means.
via Rafe Colburn...
Besides which, embarassing examples of the same
ethic at work are easily found far closer to Dubya -- Dick Cheney,
whose Halliburton funneled drilling equipment to Saddam through a
French subsidiary; his various brothers and friends who have been in
trouble with bank regulators over the past few years. And who could
forget Ken Lay?