Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Ethics Of Political Brinksmanship

Also see this article posted online at its original source:  http://www.globalethics.org/newsline/2012/12/17/political-brinksmanship/

Two more weeks until the United States pitches over the “fiscal cliff”!

The phrase is shorthand for the consequences anticipated on December 31 should the U.S. government fail to address the Budget Control Act of 2011 with its attendant tax hikes and spending cuts.

When Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke warned of the fiscal cliff last February, he likely intended to heighten public awareness of the risks that would follow should leaders fail to address the national debt, spending, and the pending expiration of Bush-era tax cuts. Ten months later, as the deadline for action looms closer, the term fiscal cliff has been flung about so often that its power to shock has been replaced by its power to annoy. It’s a phrase now amplified by dire warnings of massive unemployment, Wall Street hoarding, economic stagnation, a decimated federal credit rating, middle-class devastation, and other apocalyptic forecasts. The language describing the negotiations themselves is similarly extreme (and prone to sports metaphors). These are gladiators, going multiple rounds in a showdown that is (variably) stalled, softening, heating up, tense, and too late. The negotiators are punching, posturing, leveraging, uncooperative, confident, blinking, playing chicken, flailing, taking hostages, and seeking cover. Proposals are laughable, dead on arrival, delusional, unserious, a charade, a chess match, and unworthy of a response.

Exaggeration, hyperbole, and threats seem to be endemic to all forms of negotiation, from used car prices to pro hockey contracts. At their essence, are these strategies tantamount to lies? And if they are lies, are they justified? Is their use ethical? Even if acceptable for tactical advantage in job negotiations, are they appropriate in legislation involving the world’s largest economy?

Under the best of circumstances, negotiators may find themselves confronted by ethical dilemmas characterized by competing goods. Truth-vs.-loyalty dilemmas arise when parties are inclined to be forthright, but the strictures of the bargaining process or promises made with allies prohibit transparency. Short-term-vs.-long-term considerations also must be weighed as the immediate values of respect and candor are juxtaposed against the ultimate aim of prevailing in the deal. And the individual-vs.-community paradigm is evident when negotiators weigh their own electoral interests with the needs of their constituents, their donors, and the country at large. Similar conflicts of interest are reflected in inside-outside messaging when negotiators posture to maintain their followers and appease allies while making covert diplomatic efforts to reach consensus with the other party.

Maybe such deceit does not even constitute an ethical dilemma. Some would contend that it is a routine and expected element in any negotiation. The extremes ostensibly create starting points from which the parties can move closer to an acceptable compromise. Starting with honesty and transparency would mean conceding past a fair midpoint if the other party failed to do the same. Taking all statements at face value is naive and violates the first rule of bargaining: “Let the buyer beware.” Perhaps implicit in this view is the consequentialist position that the ends justify the means. If the norms of negotiation involve overstatements, omitting relevant facts, misrepresenting intentions, or concealing the bottom line, isn’t it implicitly fair to all parties — and therefore ethical?

According to Sisela Bok, “A lie is a statement, believed by the liar to be false, made to another person with the intention that the person be deceived by the statement.” If the other party in a negotiation expects false positions and will not be deceived by outlandish threats and brinkmanship, perhaps the inflammatory statements are not technically lies. Still, they clearly are not the truth, either. Bok cautions us about the slippery slope that emerges when the principle of veracity is not universally embraced. In cases like the fiscal cliff, there are other harms of dishonesty to consider beyond the risk of deceiving the other party.

Played out on a national stage, amplified by a 24/7 news media voraciously seeking a new twist on an old story, political leaders’ maneuvers do great damage. Extreme postures erode public confidence and increase cynicism. Like the boy who cried wolf, our leaders’ extreme positions create a public inured to warnings, discouraged about civic engagement, and detached from the outcomes of political jousting. And contrary to the popular wisdom about extremity as a precursor of compromise, the noise and threats seem only to lead to further escalation and distance between positions rather than to resolution.