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Sunday, September 25, 2005

Legitimation crisis....

It is often -- actually frequently -- the case that my reading in philosophy (which I did too little of as a student) coincides with something relevant going on in the news. Since I am reading about theories of moral and causal responsibility, this comes as no surprise. Such issues are typically near the surface in almost any news story, but the government's response to Katrina and Rita have made the obscure philosophical discussions really quite relevant.

A key point here is that the usual link between causal and moral responsibility, while rational and neat on the formal level, is in fact irrelevant to dynamics of governance today. It turns out that in the real world of accountable governance, it matters not one iota whether one is causally responsible for something; rather it matters whether you are held "morally" responsible.

(The scare quotes around morally reflects my rather loose approach to what is moral, for I believe that something rises to the level of being moral if it is subject to a sense of indignation...).

As FEMA, the White House and various other governmental entities and agents have discovered, it doesn't matter whether you are actually responsible for an event; what matters is whether you are held responsible either officially or informally -- that is, whether you are perceived as blameworthy (even though you might not be in fact blamable) or liable (under real or imagined conditions of law) or answerable (again, whether reflecting some formal or imagined sense of answerable), or just being indentified with some stigmatizable group (e.g., bureaucrats, politicians, etc.).

Operating in the context of hyper-accountability (which is our current condition) essentially and effectively renders any governmental agent or agency "damned if you do and damned if you don't". Under the hyped attention of the mass media, public officials are more like to opt for the "damned if you do".

Case in point: the panic-driven evacuations in the face of Hurricane Rita. It is interesting that folks are starting to talk of the "Katrina effect" to explain why the things went so wrong, the result being a tendency to "blame the victims" of this media-driven and government supported panic. The question that has to be asked is what caused the media and government to behave so inappropriately in the face of a hurricane that should have been treated as just that -- just another hurricane, no more exceptional than other hurricanes that visit the Gulf at this time almost every year. The answer is to be found in a "culture of governance" that is no longer tethered to a belief in the competence of public sector institutions -- a belief undermined by the very institutions (electoral politics, media freedom, etc.) that are central to that competence.

Perhaps it is time to revisit Habermas' Legitimation Crisis....

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