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Pittsburgh Tribune-Review: “A cut above?”

In my column for the November 4th, 2008, edition of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, I wrote about former U.S. senator from Alaska Ted Stevens, who was convicted on charges of corruption. You can read my column beneath the fold.

A cut above?

Sen. Ted Stevens’ face was etched with dismay — at least, that’s what I saw when I looked at his picture in The Washington Post, taken as he left the courthouse following his conviction on charges of corruption.

He didn’t look like a man sorry for anything he had done. Rather, he looked like a man convinced that unjust forces managed to finagle the system into successfully prosecuting someone who knows in his bones that he’s done no wrong.

My first instinct is to have no sympathies for Sen. Stevens. But reflection compels me to register a brief on his behalf. My defense of the senator of Alaska is not a defense of the practice of politicians accepting, and failing to report, large personal gifts from private parties who might have an interest in legislation.

Indeed, I wouldn’t suffer a moment of unease if I learned that Ted Stevens’ career is ruined or even that he’ll rot in prison.

My defense is much more limited. It starts from the fact that a major influence on human beings’ understanding of right and wrong is personal experience. We do not enter this world with a detailed treatise on ethics implanted into our minds. While we are hard-wired with some general instincts that set the outer boundaries of the kinds of persons we become, each of us gets our specific sense of right and wrong from our actual living experiences.

Most of us — earning only what we persuade other people voluntary to give us in exchange for what we give them — develop a sense of right and wrong that guides us well in modern commercial society.

Despite recent alleged problems with markets, we generally don’t cheat others, and when we do, guilt often reveals itself on our faces.

We also understand that we occupy no exalted position over others. If we didn’t have this sense of social equity, we would too often disdain to trade with “inferiors.”

In doing so, though, we would not only forgo valuable gains from trade for ourselves but be outshone by fellow citizens who, less stricken with a superiority complex, would perform these trades and gain from them. (Don’t be misled by the history of Jim Crow: These restrictions were created by legislation and enforced by government. Governments elected by racially bigoted voters imposed Jim Crow throughout the South precisely because the market was breaking down irrational barriers to commerce.)

In short, most of us learn what economist Deirdre McCloskey calls the “bourgeois virtues” — thrift, willingness to work, honesty, respect for private property rights and a clear sense of the distinction between mine and thine.

And here we come to a problem for Ted Stevens.

Most Americans (apart from those ignited by partisan passions) judge him according to bourgeois standards. The typical American supposes that no one is above the law. The typical American knows that when someone supplies $250,000 worth of renovation work on a house that the supplier does so only in the expectation of receiving good value in return. The typical American cannot imagine what it is like to be so busy (as Sen. Stevens alleged) as to forget about a legal obligation to disclose a financial transaction of such a size.

But Stevens has spent decades in politics. He was in the Alaska state House from 1965 to 1968, and, since then, in the U.S. Senate. In short, the world he has inhabited for more than half of his life is not the same world inhabited by most Americans.

The social norms of ordinary Americans are vastly different from those that dominate in politics, especially at the national level. This difference makes it impossible for ordinary Americans to appreciate what Stevens and other long-serving members of Congress expect and how they think.

For more than 40 years Ted Stevens has practiced the art of winning popularity contests by spending money belonging to other people. He has commerce of a sort with lobbyists and with fellow senators — say, promising his vote on Bill X in exchange for another senator’s vote on Bill Y — but this commerce is not with his own money.

In addition, he’s called “a lawmaker.” That’s a grand title! If you’re a lawmaker, can you really be as humble before the law as those of us who aren’t “lawmakers”?

I believe (although I cannot prove) that Ted Stevens sincerely thinks himself innocent of any wrongdoing. According to the norms of Stevens’ political class, national politicians are special people, entitled to be judged by different standards than those that apply to ordinary men and women.

He’s a “public servant” — a “lawmaker” — one of the select few who are ultimately in charge of running the country. He cannot be expected to behave as the rest of us do.


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