Rob Portman: Unfit for Office

by Benjamin Studebaker

Rob Portman is a republican senator from Ohio, and, despite the fact that he has just announced that he now supports gay marriage, a position with which I agree, the manner in which he has come to this position demonstrates that he is by his very nature unfit to guide state policy. Here’s why.

Let’s look at part of Portman’s explanation of his change of heart:

At the time, my position on marriage for same-sex couples was rooted in my faith tradition that marriage is a sacred bond between a man and a woman. Knowing that my son is gay prompted me to consider the issue from another perspective: that of a dad who wants all three of his kids to lead happy, meaningful lives with the people they love, a blessing Jane and I have shared for 26 years.

There’s a reason I used the phrase “change of heart”. Portman did not change his mind. There are millions of people just like his son all around the world who are homosexual. Many of them were almost certainly saying the very same things Portman’s son was saying. Yet it was not until the issue touched Portman’s life personally that he changed positions. He was moved by a personal anecdote, not by any of their arguments or even their pleas.

Think about that. Politicians as a group do not have personal experience of most of the problems presently experienced by the citizenry. Most of them are not poor and have no poor family members. They are employed and their families tend to be employed. They had educational opportunities, they have health care, they have not experienced hunger, rape, molestation, any number of things. They have not suffered in the ways that other people routinely suffer and have always suffered. I do not suggest that being good at statecraft requires that one have all the negative life experiences of those one is to govern. That would be monstrous. What I do suggest, however, is that one have the objectivity and impartiality to govern justly even in cases in which one has no direct experience of problems.

Having never been hungry should be no obstacle to one’s efforts to alleviate hunger. Having never been poor should be no obstacle to one’s efforts to alleviate poverty, and so on. It is in the social interest to eliminate those problems, and the people who run the state are meant to use state power to act in the social interest, not merely to address only those problems that affect them personally.

A state in which only the personal problems of the rulers themselves are dealt with is a state in which taxes on the rich are kept low, property rights are put first, and–wait a moment, that already happens in most developed countries.  The politicians address problems that affect them personally, problems that affect their campaign donors personally, and problems that affect their core voting blocks personally. What they do not do, however, is consider the wider social interest. Portman is one of many, a symptom of a wider structural problem.

The other day, I said that the best teachers are those whose self-interest happens to match what the state interest requires of them in the first place–a love of helping children to be better people. People who enjoy the function to which they have been assigned perform best in that function. Good statesmen are like good teachers in so far as their self-interest should match the state interest. They should genuinely desire to aid in the creation of the good state and the good society. Rob Portman and those like him have no interest in this project. They will defend themselves and their friends and allies, but not the people as a whole.

The sad thing is that the idea I’m expressing here, that this is a social interest, and that the people who run the state are meant to care for it, is not new. Plato, Mill, Hegel, any number of philosophers and theorists can be found who espouse the notion. Yet, despite this, it is now increasingly popular to view any individual who takes a stand on an issue that does not affect said individual personally as a potential hypocrite, as an unusual and suspicious do-gooder who must have some ulterior motive.

When I was in middle school, around the age of 12, I voiced support for gays and for gay marriage. I myself am not homosexual, and I was not aware at the time that I knew any who were–I simply couldn’t see a reason why homosexuality should be a problem or should result in ill-treatment, and as obsessive political person, I felt it my civic duty to oppose the liberal use of the word “gay” as a derogatory. The response from my fellow students illustrates the depth to which this positively anti-civic ethic has taken hold. They put it to me: why would I care about gay people unless I was one or was friends with one? Surely I had to be gay or be friends with gay people, and for a time I was routinely made fun of. I would dismiss this experience as a mere anecdote, but the same thing happens frequently in our politics. Warren Buffett came out in favour of higher tax rates on the wealthy, a policy which not only is not for his benefit but arguably harms him, and the response was accusations of hypocrisy, as if being wealthy precluded one from caring about those who are not.

Fortunately for me, I live a charmed life devoid of the many serious problems other people face, not merely in the developing world but in the rich countries themselves. Yet almost none of the political or philosophical positions I take have anything to do with me or pursuing my own good, and when my personal interest and my political views match, I consider that sufficient reason to be suspicious of my views, to question them and ask if they are truly objective. For whatever reason, most people do not seem to believe they are obliged to do this. Most people seem to think it’s perfectly acceptable to refuse to consider the social interest when determining political views, and to refuse to consider the social interest when voting. As a result, those that govern us are like those that choose them–they have no concern for society and rule in the interest of themselves and their supporters. Through this stunning lack of objectivity, both our politicians and our voters demonstrate themselves unfit to rule.