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Political Standards

Here’s Pres. Bill Clinton speaking at a White House press conference on March 7, 1997, in response to questions about press scrutiny of his alleged wrongful use of the Lincoln Bedroom for political purposes:

And I also don’t think it’s good enough to say it is legal. I think we should be held to a higher standard than just, “It is legal.”

I read and hear frequently the mantra “politicians should be held to a higher standard.”  My response to this assertion has always been: Any institution the success of which requires its human operatives to behave more nobly, honestly, and self-sacrificingly than the typical adult in society is an institution that is bound to fail (at least as measured against its ostensible goals).  Some human beings are indeed more noble, honest, and self-sacrificing than are other human beings.  (And the appropriate standards of behavior can and do change over time – hopefully, but not always, for the better.)  But those people whose lust for power and acclaim is sufficiently strong to prompt them to do all that is necessary to grab political power are likely to be unusually ignoble, dishonest, and greedy (if not for money, certainly for power and applause).

So in fact, if the appropriate standards of behavior should be set profession by profession (rather than as the average throughout the whole society), then politicians should be held to a lower standard than whatever standard is average for non-politicians.  And in fact – as yesterday’s FBI decision regarding Hillary Regina suggests – we in fact do hold politicians to a lower standard.  Further evidence for this lower standard is that most people expect politicians to dissemble, trim, and lie.  This widespread expectation explains why such dissembling, trimming, and lying by politicians are typically excused with the explanation “It’s just politics.”  (Why so many people think politics to be ennobling – why politicians’ names are often prefixed with “Hon.” – continues to baffle me.)

But of course, given that the state has power that no individual and no other institution has, it would be very good (if hardly sufficient) for politicians in fact to be held to a higher standard.  Perhaps this reality explains why it is common for people to say that politicians “should be” – or even that politicians “are” – “held to higher standard.”  Perhaps the frequent intonation of this mantra is felt to be adequate to make up for the countless harms, petty and pronounced, that politicians are forever inflicting upon us.

Anyway, I wonder if the Hon. William Jefferson Clinton in 2016 stands by his stated belief in 1997 that politicians and government officials “should be held to a higher standard than just, ‘It is legal.'”  I’m guessing not.  In fact, I’m guessing that the Hon. Mr. Clinton is pleased that the Hon. Ms. Clinton was held to a lower standard than “It is legal.”

Are you bothered by the inconsistency?  Don’t be.  It’s just politics!  We can’t hold politicians to the same standard of consistency to which we hold corporate CEOs, physicians, restaurant owners, car salesmen, liquor-store clerks, prostitutes, and other lesser beings.  If we did so, why, indecent people would be elected to office.

UPDATE: David Boaz correctly points out, in a comment on my Facebook page, that Hon. Mr. Clinton rescinded his stated standard in 1998.