The Public Record

THE PUBLIC RECORD….Aroused by Daniel Davies’ and Jon Chait’s recent tongue lashings of the right, Tyler Cowen throws out an idea:

I’d like to propose a new research convention. Anytime a writer or blogger talks about what The Right or The Left (or some subset thereof) really wants or means, I’d like them to list their personal anthropological experience with the subjects under consideration. Davies presents [Milton] Friedman as a shill for the Republican Party; I’d like to know how many (public or non-public) conversations he has had with Friedman about the topic of the Republican Party.

….How many supply-siders has Chait talked to? It might be a lot, but again I’d like to know. Has he met with the people who write The Wall Street Journal Op-Ed page? How many of them? How many leading Republican donors and strategists does he know? Did they really chat with him, or were they in controlled “interview mode”? How motivated are they by supply-side doctrine? What did those say who weren’t so motivated?

How many intelligent pro-life Republicans do you know? How many southern racist Republicans do you know? Have they confided in you? Do they trust you? Do you really think you know what they believe?

Actually, this kind of amateur anthropology goes on all the time, and it obviously has its uses. But it also has its drawbacks: the conventions of social interaction allow people to obfuscate, prevaricate, evade, and just generally lay on the charm in ways that frequently blur distinctions instead of sharpening them. And human beings being the social primates that we are, we often give views that we hear in person more weight than they deserve simply because we heard them in person.

So I disagree: When it comes to important issues of public policy this kind of personal interaction should be secondary. For the most part, we shouldn’t judge people by what they say in private or how they act around their kids. We shouldn’t judge presidential candidates by how sociable they are on the press plane or whether they’d make a good drinking buddy. That’s how we ended up with George Bush. We should judge them mostly by their public record: their speeches, their actions, their roll call votes, and their funding priorities. Anthropological research, aka hanging out and having a few beers, is fun and interesting, but it’s not necessarily a superior guide to what someone really thinks or what they’ll really do when the crunch comes.

As a political blogger, I often wonder if I’d be better off if I lived in Washington DC. There are obvious upsides: DC is full of interesting conferences, has scads of subject matter experts, and is home to lots of social gatherings where I could catch up on the latest gossip, discuss issues in more depth than I can via email, and take the measure of people in person instead of only in print. This kind of thing is great blog fodder. I’ll bet that lunch with Tyler and his GMU confederates would be both instructive and entertaining, for example.

But there’s an upside to being a continent away, too: I don’t hear any of the gossip, so it doesn’t affect what I think or write. Everyone’s on the same print-based plane. And I don’t have any close relationships, so I can pretty much say whatever I feel without worrying that I’m going to lose a friendship over it. (I worry about that sometimes, of course — I’m a human being, not a cyborg — but certainly less than if I had regular social contact with the people I write about.) Overall, even with the downsides factored in, I’ll bet that my analytical track record is better because I keep my distance and avoid being spun, not worse.

But of course, there’s no way to know for sure. Maybe someday Marian and the cats and I will move to DC, and after a few years you can all decide whether my blogging is better or worse for it. But no time soon, I’m afraid.