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3.9.03

More Bush psychology: ideology versus red tape

EPA Lifts Ban On Selling PCB Sites

The Bush administration has ended a 25-year-old ban on the sale of land polluted with PCBs. The ban was intended to prevent hundreds of polluted sites from being redeveloped in ways that spread the toxin or raise public health risks.
The Environmental Protection Agency decided the ban was "an unnecessary barrier to redevelopment (and) may actually delay the clean-up of contaminated properties," according to an internal memo issued last month to advise agency staff of the change.

... The decision, already in effect, has not been made public. It is being treated as a "new interpretation" of existing law, according to the memo, which was obtained by USA TODAY. As such, no public comment was required.

... The policy shift does not affect cleanup standards and liability rules for PCB sites. The memo says the change is needed to resolve cases in which buyers want to clean up PCB-fouled sites that are owned by people who lack the money or ability to do it.

... But the EPA already allowed its regional offices to waive the ban on selling PCB-contaminated land when a buyer is willing to clean it up. Regional officials say that process slowed the transfer of a few properties but generally worked.


Complaints about nonexistent red tape seem to be a popular tactic in the Bush administration -- they also feature prominently in the rationale for the Healthy Forests Initiative. It's a tricky strategy, and nearly fooled me here -- until I got toward the end of the article and saw that the red tape wasn't a real problem, I was willing to give this policy change the benefit of the doubt.

I was still suspicious, though, because of the secrecy involved in this change. Ordinarily it would suggest that the administration has something it wants to hide, and expected a public comment period and publicity for the proposal would not bring accolades. On the other hand, this administration seems to have a genetic demand for secrecy, so it could perhaps be due as much to habit as to a rational calculation of the consequences in this particular case.

I think there's something of a connection between the two elements of secrecy and aversion to red tape. In Max Weber's terminology of bureaucratic versus charismatic governance, Bush comes down squarely on the side of charisma. It was apparent in the 2000 campaign, when his supporters favorably contrasted his "character" to Al Gore's obsession with policy detail. It paid off handsomely when, after September 11, he was able to connect with Americans as a strong but comforting father figure rather than winning them over with a rational and effective plan for combatting terrorism (though many would argue that he did subsequently come up with that, too). He was famously able to judge Vladimir Putin's soul by a fact-to-face meeting with the Russian president, rather than an analysis of his acts in office.

Beyond his personal charisma, Bush has a personality-based, rather than institutionalized, method of getting things done. It's well known that one of the things he prizes above all else in advisors is their personal loyalty. He wants to work through connections, not formal procedures. This is (at least part of) why he has such aversion to red tape, of which public disclosure/freedom of information requirements are a subset. "Red tape" is a pejorative (sometimes accurately so) term for institutional constraints on the actions of the powerful. Such restraints exist because the personal integrity of our leadership can't always be trusted -- at the most basic level, this is the "liberal" in "liberal democracy". Bush is frustrated by these formalities. He would restrain the abuses of the powerful not by explicit procedures but by a shared implicit morality. It's the obvious rawness of the formal standards, their existence as external constraints rather than internal motivations, that is the problem.

This, I think, is the center of the difference between the small-government tendencies of social conservatism and of libertarianism. Various social theorists, notably Louis Althusser and Anthony Giddens (who nevertheless disagreed about much else), tended to divide social forces into three camps -- politics, economics, and ideology. Politics are those forces that revolve around physical coercion, or the threat thereof. Economics are those forces that arise out of incentives arising from access to resources. Ideology (intended here in a non-pejorative sense) is those forces that are rooted in people's beliefs. As a quick example, if you want to keep me off of your property, a political solution might be to hire a guard, an economic solution might be to pay me to keep out, and an ideological solution might be to convince me that God doesn't want me to tresspass.

Both libertarians and conservatives have a distrust of the domestic use of political forces (since even the most seemingly benign regulations are backed by the threat of a court imposing a coercive punishment). But without political force, what keeps society in line? Libertarians place great confidence in economic forces -- that social order will arise spontaneously out of people's pursuit of scarce resources, so long as political force on the part of citizens or the government is kept at a minimum. There's a quasi-Darwinian logic in that anyone who strays too far will fail, like an out-competed company, and thus we're in a sense coerced by the threat of poverty into playing by the rules (a consequentialist system, as opposed to the short-term moralizing inherent in political justice). For this reason, libertarians are able to be "civil libertarians" -- that is, to grant broad freedom in matters of ideology such as freedom of speech or religion. Conservatives, on the other hand, place more confidence in ideology. Ideology acts as a sort of internalized coercion that keeps people wanting to be on the straight and narrow. When ideology is supreme, politics becomes unneccessary -- and thus conservatives are happy with rolling back those political regulations that they feel are superseded by people's ideological trustworthiness (as, for example, the trustworthiness of ordinary people to take care of their environments). In the short term, however, they often depend on an application of politics -- such as state-sponsored religion and moralizing legislation -- to cultivate the necessary ideology.

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