Does Hypocrisy Matter?

Over at Mother Jones, Kevin Drum writes a quick, irked post in which he takes the ever-odious Gregg Easterbrook to task for the admittedly annoying habit of always looking for perceived hypocrisy, even when it’s not there or the charge of hypocrisy isn’t relevant or accurate:

The point of laws is to provide a level playing field, and no one is a hypocrite for following existing law even if they think it should be changed. That goes for congressmen who accept earmarks even though they think earmarks should be banned, it goes for drivers who park for free on city streets even though they think parking meters should be installed, and it goes for rich people who pay taxes at the current rate even though they think that rate is too low.

No one is obligated to be a sucker. The whole point of taxation is that it’s a collective enterprise: I’m willing to pay my taxes for the common good as long as everyone else is doing it too. But until then, there’s no reason that I should impoverish myself (or my constituents) while everyone else is merrily taking full advantage of current law. Fairness matters, and that ain’t fair.

Drum’s so obviously irritated (and Easterbrook is so deservedly a target of his annoyance) that I want to just throw up my hands in the ubiquitous Limbaugh-ian “ditto” sign and move on. But I don’t think Drum’s criticism of those who bring a charge of hypocrisy against public figures who appear to be saying “do as I say, not as I do” is warranted in all cases. To be fair to Drum, he doesn’t use the phrase “do as I say, not as I do.” Instead, he talks about not metaphorically tying one’s own hand behind one’s back by following rules that don’t exist (or not taking advantage of ones that do) in comparison to everyone else who does take advantage of those rules or laws.

I agree, but only up to a point.

The entire concept – and in fact, the effectiveness – of social disobedience is based on the notion that one does NOT follow existing rules. It is by the very act of not following those rules that one makes explicit and dramatizes the moral reasoning behind the disagreement with those rules. How many fewer people do you suppose would have been willing to follow Gandhi into the clubs and guns of the Raj’s lines if he had given the identical speeches on nonviolent resistance and noncooperation with oppression…but refused to practice it himself or subject himself to the same beatings?

Drum may be irritated with what he refers to as this “most annoying trope,” but the reason it returns perennially is because people sense there is some degree of truth in it, of just accusation. It’s a simple matter of walking the talk: if one wishes to declare certain rules or laws unjust – especially if one wishes to publicly lead the charge against those rules or laws – it DOES smack of hypocrisy and insincerity if one continues to benefit privately from those same unjust rules and laws.

There are limits, of course, and this is where I agree with Drum. For example: my family still owns two cars and we drive them daily, despite both my wife and I believing fervently that humanity (and especially America) ought to be doing everything we can to move away from a fossil-fuel based transportation system as quickly as possible. Why? Because, decades ago, our country (for various reasons) made decisions which took us down the path of building a single-person, car-based transportation system. That system is now so widespread that it is very, very difficult to conduct normal life such as going to the grocery store and taking children to activities without the use of a personal car, except in a very few, densely-inhabited metropolitan areas of this country. We do not live in one of those areas. We live in the deep south, where in many places, there are not even sidewalks along the roads, much less bike lanes, and the buildings are spread-out enough that to get many places is a matter of several miles. For us, in this situation, it would be excessively burdensome to attempt to live in 100% accordance with our principles regarding the environment and fossil fuels.

Contrast the situation of my family’s relationship to cars with Easterbrook’s observation about President Obama which so irked Drum:

Obama said last year that itemized deductions for the wealthy should be phased out — then on his own tax return, claimed a huge itemized deduction. Until those who advocate higher taxes for the well-off practice what they preach, the national debt situation may only get worse.

Here is where I differ with Drum (and, with a grinding reluctance in the pit of my stomach, find myself agreeing with Easterbrook): where my family are merely citizens of slightly-but-not-unusually above-average means, trying to get along in a transportation system which has been specifically designed to make it easy to use cars and difficult to use anything else, President Obama is the leader of America and, arguably, the free world, a wealthy man many times over, who is spearheading a charge to get “the rich” to pay more in taxes or at least close some of the loopholes they currently enjoy which allow them to pay effective rates which are at or in some cases even below the rates paid by ordinary people. The difference – and where I go from agreeing with Drum to agreeing with Easterbrook – is that in many cases where the reflexive charge of “hypocrite” is heard, there is often no realistic way for a person who advocates for a certain idea to live in 100% accordance with that idea immediately without drastically negatively impacting their life and (likely) the lives of their family. But in the case of Obama and taxes, although Drum’s point about basic fairness is valid, the disadvantage or negative impact the President and his family would feel by giving up that enormous tax deduction of the very sort Obama inveighs against would be small. Perhaps inconsequentially small.

Certainly, no one wants to pay taxes they don’t have to pay. And everyone would always be better off (financially) with more money in their pockets rather than less. But although Obama came from humble roots, he had, through the sales of his books and the combination of both his wife’s and his own above-average salaries, managed to become a wealthy man even before he became President. And it’s not an exaggeration at all to note that life after Presidency can be as much of a gravy train as the former President wishes it to be, nearly. The Obama family will never again worry for financial reasons, and everyone who pays attention knows it. So it would have cost him little and gained him much, in the credibility department, to have led by example on this issue and lived as if the better future he is championing were already here. Doing so is what gives all true leaders their moral authority. Being willing to face the firehoses and clubs gave MLK and Gandhi their legitimacy to call for gentle and nonviolent but firm and unyielding resistance to oppression and injustice. We on the left have used the charge of hypocrisy repeatedly when ridiculing (justly, in my opinion) college Republicans during the Bush administration who clamored loudly for war but refused to enlist to fight in our all-volunteer army, despite being able-bodied and of prime military age. I don’t think it was wrong or off-base to point out the hypocrisy of young, strapping bucks who brayed loudly of the moral necessity to rid the world of terrorism in the form of Saddam Hussein but whose unwillingness to even consider enlistment revealed the ugly truth that they considered the dangerous, dirty job of actually fighting wars to be “the little people’s job.”

I don’t level the same degree of condemnation against President Obama for taking advantage of current tax laws to benefit himself and his family, because it’s not as much of a moral, life-and-death stand and the hypocrisy isn’t as stark or as compelling.

But it’s on the same spectrum, and as much as that might annoy Kevin Drum, Easterbrook was right on this one.