Philip Klein at the Washington Times writes today about a minor issue cropping up for Michele Bachmann, which is that she, her family, and her constituents have directly benefited from copious amounts of government aid, to the point where she wrote a sloppy love letter to to Tom Vilsack asking for more:
Just a year later, however, Bachmann wrote to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, praising the federal government for helping prop up the prices of pig products and dairy by directly buying the commodities, a move that benefited her constituents.
"I would encourage you to take any additional steps necessary to prevent further deterioration of these critical industries, such as making additional commodity purchases," she wrote on Oct. 5, 2009. The Los Angeles Times/Tribune Washington Bureau obtained the letter through a Freedom of Information Act request.
The interesting part, though, is that Klein is arguing that her blatant hypocrisy doesn't and shouldn't matter.
It’s been a popular theme of liberals for some time, particularly over the past few years, to raise alarms every time any conservative accepts any form of government aid. The problem with this line of argument is that no matter how conservative or even libertarian people are, they still have to live in the world of big government and pay taxes to support it. Therefore, it would be absurd for them to unilaterally decide not to receive any benefits that are going to exist – and that they’ll help pay for – regardless of whether or not they accept them.
And yeah, if you're talking about, say, a candidate who abhors Social Security paying into it and accepting benefits, then that makes some sense. You'd be violating a law if you didn't pay in, and the payment is simply distributing your dollars back to you. However, what we're talking about here isn't Social Security. It's a form of discretionary government subsidy that Bachmann, as an elected representative, is in a unique position to go Galt on.
Even if she wasn't able to stop it, there's no requirement in federal government subsidies that you write back to the executive branch and tell them just how much you want to be their BFF, and how you hope they don't forget you after the summer is over. That's the weird part here – the reluctant acceptance of government aid usually doesn't come coupled with a plaintive request for as much gubmint cheese as possible.
Klein has an alternative standard for how we should judge hypocrisy, which is basically that it's only hypocrisy when Bachmann isn't doing it:
The better gauge of hypocrisy is whether your policy preferences start varying based on whether certain policies benefit you personally.
For the sake of argument, we'll let Klein off from the terrible duty of having to read the LA Times piece that demonstrates just how much she personally benefitted from policies she opposed. (It's hard in this workaday world to have to read several paragraphs before you comment on them, hence why I'm just going to talk about the blatant underuse of whipped cream in porn these days for the rest of this post.)
The problem with this argument is that when you're an elected official, particularly an elected Congressperson of whom there are only 535 in the entire country, you're not only in a unique position to effectuate your policy preferences, but you're one of the few people whose consistent voice on the issue truly matters. You do personally benefit from the positions you take and the policies you support, because your entire job is spent making decisions to justify keeping your job. When you're a small-government warrior who suddenly endorses government spending because it helps your constituents, that endorsement's purpose is to keep your constitutents – i.e., your employers – happy. When they're happy, you get reelected. When you get reelected, you keep your paycheck, your power, and your platform to do things like run for President.
There's a common thread among conservative ideologues that pointing out the hypocrisy of conservative elected officials on deep matters of policy is an ineffective and lazy critique. The point isn't whether that ideology is followed, but instead whether it's a good idea to begin with (an argument that generally leads back to you being called a big-government statist). The inability of conservative proponents to follow the ideology they adhere to, even when they have the power to do it, isn't really hypocrisy – it's just big government's fault for making them do it. In the real world, though, that hypocrisy has weight to it, because those ideologues aren't passive watchers, they're active participants in a process they simultaneously promote and demonize.