Sunday, February 8, 2009

On Necessity

Necessity is a key word in Washington these days. President Barack Obama tells us that if we don't pass a stimulus package the consequences will be unthinkable. "We can't afford to make perfect the enemy of the absolutely necessary," he told the nation in his radio address last Saturday.

How can that which is imperfect also be absolutely necessary? Even though imperfection runs on a spectrum, the President will have us believe that doing something – anything – is better than doing nothing. Well, we’ve heard this before. There are no ifs and buts when emergency calls. Better a decisive mistake than an indecisive impasse, said Machiavelli to his Prince. But as the Bard taught us, "they stumble that run fast."

Fortunately, Obama isn’t the only one playing this game. Congressional Republicans have cloaked their ideological priorities in the language of necessity too. Aid to states was slashed in the Senate version of the bill, as was money designated for school construction. We are told that none of these are pressing concerns that deserve a place in a stimulus package, and so the vocal Republican minority have decided that it is OK for state employees like teachers to lose their jobs even if the impact of this on the economy would be immediate and demonstrable – the very criteria they are using to decide what counts as a “stimulus.”

The Senate will likely pass its version of the stimulus package bill by a precarious margin early next week, and Congressional leaders should be able to work out the differences between the House and the Senate bills. The end result will not be bipartisan, and it will not solve all our economic woes. But in its imperfections we shall see that we are not slaves to anybody’s invocation of necessity. In our system of government, no institution, no party, and no one has a monopoly – at least not for long – on what necessity demands. Even at the brink of a grave recession, we remain free to disagree on if, when, and how. And so in our recalcitrance we shall live and suffer our liberty.

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