Sometimes, Politicians Need to Be Political

Robert Gates

Kevin Williamson is being quite unfair to Robert Gates in his editorial piece. Sometimes, an argument from organizational self-interest is the best argument to carry the day on a particular issue, and failing to argue from a standpoint of organizational self-interest means losing the argument on that issue. There are doubtless a significant number of people in the Boy Scouts who would prefer to keep the current ban against gay troop leaders, and no amount of moral suasion is going to change the minds of those people. Equally doubtless: Those who remain opposed to changing the rules banning gay troop leaders continue to hold a lot of sway within the Scouts organization. If moral suasion doesn’t work on this group and won’t persuade them to drop their opposition to gay troop leaders, then an argument based on organizational self-interest is about the only thing that will convince these holdouts to do the right and moral thing. Gates cannot be blamed for using an appeal to organizational self-interest to right a wrong, and Williamson is unwise and unkind to criticize Gates for using the best tool available to change the Scouts’ stance on this issue.

Williamson appears to be equally upset that in his time as secretary of defense, Gates made other arguments from the standpoint of organizational self-interest, to which (again), my response would be that at times, the organizational self-interest argument may be the best argument out there in order to get an organization–or a key constituency within that organization–to do the right thing. Williamson seems to think that Gates is a typical bureaucrat, but despite the fact that Gates has never campaigned for a vote, the best description of him is not “bureaucrat,” but “politician.” And as a politician, Gates sometimes has to be political and savvy in order to successfully implement a just and moral policy regarding a particular issue. Not everyone responds to arguments concerning right and wrong, but if one can get people to behave upstandingly for selfish reasons, and good comes out of that decision, there really is no reason why others should get upset over that fact.

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