Leave Anthony Weiner Alone

by Benjamin Studebaker

Once again I find myself writing about this topic, the tendency in democratic politics for candidates and officials of potentially substantial merit to be disqualified on the basis of sexual behavior. When last I ruminated on this subject, the individual under attack was David Petraeus. Today it is, for the second time, Anthony Weiner the former New York congressman who is attempting to resurrect his career with a run for mayor of New York City. The revelation is apparently that, sometime after Weiner resigned from congress, he sent another person sexually explicit photos. The condemnation has been seemingly near-universal, and, I would argue, near-universally misplaced.

On what basis is Weiner deemed to be unsuitable for office on account of this latest escapade? He is being accused of, among other things:

  • Dishonesty/lack of integrity
  • Arrogance
  • Poor judgement

It may very well be true that he exercised all three characteristics during his period of promiscuity. However, in order to believe that Weiner’s sexual episode really speaks to his political character, one must make an assumption–that an individual’s sexual behavior tracks their political tendencies as well.

It is by no means obvious that this assumption is true. We are often dishonest, arrogant, or bad judges about some things, but not necessarily about all things. If someone asks me how my day is going, I might lie and say it’s going well even if it’s not in order to avoid the ensuing conversation. That doesn’t necessarily mean I will commit fraud, perjury, or some other kind of publicly detrimental lie. I might be very arrogant about my ability to best opponents at NBA 2K13, but I need not also be arrogant about say, my ability to lift heavy objects. I may be bad at judging when it is acceptable to change the subject during a conversation, but good at judging among different economic policies.

People have multiple different varieties of intelligence, many different areas in which they are both talented and not talented. It would be exceedingly unfair to judge most writers on their math skills or most mathematicians on their writing skills. It would be wrong of me to assume that all New Yorkers are terrible voters just because New Yorkers have an irrational tendency to believe that the Knicks are much, much better than they actually are. It is exceedingly unfair to judge Weiner’s political ethics or acumen on the basis of the ethics or acumen he displays in his relationship with his spouse. How many times now have we run across politicians who consistently vote for social conservative policies but privately have permissive, unconventional sex lives? We call them “hypocrites”, but we’re missing the point–what we think is reasonable public policy is not necessarily what we are emotionally drawn to in our private lives.

It is by no means rare for talented and skilled psychologists to themselves have deeply dysfunctional families and private lives. People are bad about being objective when their own lives are at stake. They get mired in their individual perspectives, they lose sight of their larger principles. None of that need translate to their day to day professions. People are better at advising others than they are at self-regulating because they benefit from detachment and the cool head it brings.  Politics is not about self-regulating, it’s not a personal discipline, it’s about regulating others, about determining how other people should behave and treat one another to prevent harm and provide benefit. Practicing politics is much more like the psychologist’s day job than it is his home life.

Weiner’s sex life has nothing to do with his ability to run New York. Those who oppose Weiner self-justify this opposition by making misplaced appeals to this argument, but in all actuality they oppose Weiner because they find his behavior personally distasteful. They oppose Weiner not because of their assessment of his mayoral skills, but because they don’t like him personally. Perhaps some of them have themselves at some point in time been cheated on, perhaps they have a strong black and white socially conservative personal moral ethos, perhaps they never liked Weiner in the first place and are using the sex scandal as an opportunity to attempt to sink him. There are no doubt many genuine political opponents of Weiner using the scandal tactically, attempting to manipulate people into disliking Weiner personally in order to advance their political views.

Rejecting a statesman because you don’t like him is an inadmissible justification. Statecraft is extremely important. When we decide who to hand the reigns of the state to, we decide who can coerce us into doing things against our will, who can imprison us, who can tax us and how much and to what end, a vast array of crucial things. If we get these things wrong, there is massive unnecessary suffering. It is unacceptable to reject potentially skilled statesmen on the basis that you, personally, would not want to be friends with them. A man’s personal virtue or lack thereof has nothing to do with the quality of his deeds.

Sometimes, it even takes a prick to get the job done. Steve Jobs was famous for being deeply unpleasant. Yet some number of you are quite possibly reading this on an Apple (or, if you’re reading this in the distant future, some technology possibly evolved from Apple tech. In which case, I have to ask–I’m glad you’re reading this and all, but why do you still care about Anthony Weiner? Is he running for president or something?).

So let’s hope that New Yorkers decide whether or not to support Anthony Weiner based on their best estimate of his mayoral acumen. Let’s hope they look at his record as a congressman and, previously, as a city councilman, and determine whether or not they think choosing him as mayor is in the social interest and vote accordingly. Let’s hope that those determinations are well-considered and epistemically justifiable. Oh, who am I kidding?