All too often, our public policy debates are infused with more than a little bit of moral glibness. It is all too easy to forget that policy affects people’s lives. Perhaps it is because many of us who study and work in public policy or politics are, to a large degree, unaffected by many of these policies.
Generally speaking, most politically active individuals come from middle to upper middle income families and possess at least a four year degree. Certain areas of public policy seem to bear no direct impact on our lives. Sure, we would all like good roads and public schools (if we have children) and a low crime neighborhood. But what about poverty reduction programs or decisions on war? Absent some direct impact on our lives, it is unlikely that we will maintain a deep passion about such matters. Even within our own areas of expertise, we sometimes fall victim to losing perspective. I cannot say how many times I have glossed over the impact of certain budget allocations, focusing only on the numbers themselves.
Even those with the best intentions fall victim to glibness from time to time. However, there seems to be a subset of the population who are terminally glib. I realize that this example is a bit overused, but it still resonates with many- armchair warriors. These are the people who insist the United States must invade country x or y or z, without any analysis of the costs. By costs I mean not only financial, but the personal costs for our own military and their families and for the civilians in whatever country we are about to invade.
This is not to say that war is never the answer, but rather that we must endeavor to make an honest calculation of our wars’ costs. It is simply wrong to send our soldiers and marines into harm’s way without considering the impacts. It is wrong to subject civilians to the brutalities of war without a just cause.
I do not wish to turn this into a diatribe against the Iraq War (a war that I initially supported), but it serves as the prime example of moral glibness. There has been an endless parade of armchair warriors, with no skin in the game, leading the charge into war and glossing over the very real costs to our military and to the civilian population of Iraq. These same folks have also been beating the war drum for Iran and an escalation in Afghanistan.
I can’t claim to have the answer for Afghanistan, but it would be an enormous folly to seek the counsel of those who were phenomenally wrong on Iraq. Those individuals should have been laughed out of the public sphere, but for the weird way in which our discourse works- no matter how wrong you are in support of militaristic action, you can never be held accountable. That these same people are still regularly featured on Sunday morning talking heads programs is a testament to the moral glibness of our discourse.
What does it matter if your recommendations resulted in the deaths of thousands of US soldiers and marines and tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians? What if you lied about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein? It simply does not matter, because being a hawk means never having to say you’re sorry. And in failing to hold these people accountable, the media only further reinforces the value of moral glibness.