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Perfect Knowledge, Perfect Ignorance | The Nation

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Diary of a Mad Law Professor

Perfect Knowledge, Perfect Ignorance

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At a symposium I attended the other day, some of the speakers were pondering the nature of citizenship in the wake of the federal government's response to Hurricane Katrina. What does public office mean to an Administration whose response has been such a casual one to the single worst natural catastrophe in the nation's history? It occurred to me, as the seminar participants sifted through racial and political history for precedent, that the Bush Administration has been quite straightforward about its lack of commitment to civic responsibility: Bush always promised he would run the country like a corporation, and so he has (even if the corporation that springs to mind is Enron). In business ethics good corporate leaders are beholden first and foremost to their investors and trustees, not to the public at large.

About the Author

Patricia J. Williams
Patricia J. Williams
Patricia J. Williams, a professor of law at Columbia University, was born in Boston in 1951 and holds a BA from...

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If one sees this particular set of politicians less as representatives of popular decision-making and more as trustees of a free-market enterprise, then everything else about this Administration makes a lot more sense. Outsourcing the military to the oil industry is logical. Axing Social Security and Upward Bound as unprofitable frills makes sense. The Lower Ninth Ward will make an attractive golf course, so why "incentivize" the return of low-rent residents? Lobbyists pay to play. Money speaks in the most literal way.

These days, one reads of all sorts of monetarily based "incentives" to improve our society. Churches are reimbursed for their "charitable" acts by "faith-based" government dollars. School systems offer immediate cash rewards for students' attendance or good grades. Sales of soda from machines in school cafeterias pay for paper and pencils--and by the transitive relationship to money, consuming soda becomes the equivalent of good things like school supplies. Indeed, education itself has been reconfigured as a means to more money, not a path to an informed electorate or for instilling anything so quaint as civic virtue.

This kind of direct-exchange monetary reward system is closed, self-referential. I don't want to sound naïve--we live in a capitalist society where almost everything is almost always at least partly a commodified transaction. But since the end of the Civil War, our ideology has at least theoretically separated monetary investment from political participation. That's been a central point of the civil rights movement over the past century: We shouldn't have to be property holders to vote; we shouldn't have to pay the king's courtiers to be granted a hearing. "Due" process is not like paying a bill. It is due by virtue of our citizenship and our humanity. Our worth is not linked to our wealth or the market; our stock as citizens is an unbounded gift, not a stockpile of stuff.

The growing tension between civil rights and a global free market are nowhere more evident than in the flap over the sale of management control in six American ports to a company owned by the state of Dubai. How is one to understand Bush's adamant defense of that sale in view of his repeatedly overbroad demonizations of so much of the Middle East as "evil"? I think part of the answer is premised on a distinction between wealthy corporate entities (even if they're also states, like the Emirates) and "the Arab street." The "street" is to the Emir of Dubai a bit like what the Lower Ninth Ward is to those who live in McMansions on the highest hill. The street represents an absence of purchasing power; the street is why corporations hire security guards and put up walls. When public goods have a price, free-riders, even on the freedom train, will be reclassified as threats or thieves. That disregard for the interests of those who live on the street--literally, in New Orleans--comes as a shock to those of us who still think in terms of our citizenship. But not so to a good businessman like George W. Bush, whose brother Neil's educational software company, Ignite! (sold to school districts as a way to raise test scores so as to comply with the President's No Child Left Behind Act), is largely financed by wealthy individuals within the governments of the United Arab Emirates, including Dubai.

There has been quite a bit of "Arab-bashing" confounding the debate about port control. That said, an equally ominous institutional issue is that this sale was, like warrantless wiretapping, something for which Bush seemed to believe he owed no explanation, needed no consultation. That is the response of a corporate manager--again, maybe not a good one, but not necessarily ultra vires. As presidential behavior, however, it raises serious questions about the privatization of executive power.

One of the assumptions by which a free market is justified is that all consumers have "perfect information." This in turn presupposes that all knowledge is free and readily available. In the real world, this is a presumption that burdens the poor more onerously--one can still hear pundits talking about people who "chose" to live on flood plains or "chose" not to be middle class. In such discussions the idea of perfect knowledge sneaks in and substitutes for, or displaces, notions of political equality. No longer do we say that, rich or poor, each of us has an equal right to the basics of survival. Rather, we comfort ourselves with the thought that the poorest resident of the Lower Ninth Ward is as much a rational economic actor as Neil Bush--if only she chose to be.

Yet when I think of the number of times the Bush Administration has professed shock and awe at something most of the rest of us could see a mile away--Congress and Homeland Security ought to be systematically reviewing and cross-checking all transactions involving port security, regardless of the nationalities involved; Katrina was coming, the levees will break; Iraq might not be the best choice for an imperial cakewalk; for-profit hospitals and prisons might be more responsive to money-making than to the long-term interests of those who dwell within; the size of our deficit alone!--I wonder if there is a parallel or counter-theory to account for what we may as well call a state of perfect ignorance.

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